So you’ve got a weekend in the Eternal City, and no idea how you’re supposed to cram it all in. There’s just too much. The Imperial ruins of Rome and Christian history alone could fill an entire week of sunrise to sundown sightseeing. And we haven’t even started talking about art, gastronomy, fashion and simply wandering for the love of exploring small neighbourhoods.
If this is your first visit to Rome, you really should start with the big draws. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it’s Tokyo-subway-crowded. Yes, everyone else is doing it too. But the hype is justified. You can’t leave Rome without having seen these important landmarks of our collective past.
So save the small undiscovered neighbourhoods for your next visit. And don’t worry, you will come back. It’s impossible not to, because you’ll be well and truly hooked. As the saying goes, all roads really do lead to Rome.
We’ve agreed on the broad plan. But that still leaves you with the logistical challenge of fitting the highlights into 3 short days.
Here are a few tips and a sample itinerary to make planning your Roman Holiday a breeze.
Day One—Iconic Sights and Important Art
I based myself at a small B&B near the Villa Borghese. It’s just outside the centre so you can escape the tourist hordes and tourist prices, but you’re still within walking distance of just about everything. It’s also a heck of a lot quieter at night.
I like to begin my acquaintance with any new city by seeing it up close and on foot. Start day one by grabbing a map and taking a walk—it’s the best way to get oriented. If you’re staying in the same region as I did, simply follow the wall over to the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, where you can make like Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday.
Next, take a wander through a life of luxury by window shopping the Via Condotti. Be sure to explore the side streets too. You need deep pockets and a Swiss bank account to fill your closet here, but the further away you get from Condotti, the more the prices creep down. Take a stroll, get some inspiration, and wander up to the Piazza del Popolo.
Finally, make your way back towards Villa Borghese, and give yourself time to walk through the park. It’s a beautiful shady escape from the traffic right in the midst of the city. You must buy a ticket for the Borghese Gallery online before you go. Then just show up with your printout at the appointed time and breeze right in.
Don’t miss Bernini’s incredible sculptures: Apollo and Daphne, David, Pluto and Proserpina, and Truth Unveiled by Time are all housed here. You’ll also find paintings by Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio and Raphael.
That’s a hell of a lot of wandering for one day. You’d better grab something to eat. If you’re staying in the Villa Borghese area, take a late supper at La Pentolaccia (38 via Flavia). The food is good and the service is excellent. Splash out and treat yourself to a nice bottle of wine. What the hell—you’re in Rome!
Day Two—Exploring God’s Treasure Chest
You’re switching countries today, but don’t worry, you won’t even have to leave Rome. Just hop on the metro and make your way to Vatican City, the world’s smallest independent nation.
Everyone gets off at the Ottaviano stop. Stay in your seat, watch them crowd out the door and smile at their backs. You’re gonna continue for one more stop and save yourself a bit of effort. Jump out at Cipro, look for a steep set of steps at the end of Via Vittor Pisani, climb to the top and hang a left. That’ll take you right to the entrance of the Vatican Museum.
Again, book your ticket online and save yourself hours of sunscorched waiting in line. Be warned: the Vatican Museum is packed to the rafters with tourists as well as art. You’ll spend much of your time being swept down long galleries by an inattentive mob of people—most annoying of which are the organized tour groups with yellow flags and a tendency to shove. Scope out the floor plan ahead of time and decide which treasures you want to concentrate on most.
That’s right. You could never hope to see the entire vast collection in a day. Those Popes accumulated an incredible pile of loot while they were busy preaching poverty and looking after the poor. You’ll be absolutely inundated with Greek and Roman sculpture, Egyptian antiquities, Etruscan remains, galleries of ancient maps and tapestries, and modern and classical painting. Oh, and some religious artifacts too.
Don’t miss and the School of Athens by Raphael, the Group of the Laocoon, The River Nile, and the Sistine Chapel.
If you picked up an audio guide, you’ll have to return to the main entrance to hand it in and pick up your ID (or your wife if you left her as collateral). Then exit and follow the wall around to St. Peter’s Square. If you didn’t rent an audio guide, you can sneak out the tour group exit from the Sistine Chapel, which takes you directly to St. Peter’s square without the long detour.
Spend some time soaking up the sun and taking in the view before making your way into St. Peter’s Basilica. You’ll have to line up again to pass through security, but it usually doesn’t take that long.
On the day of my visit, an elderly Dutch couple filled the wait by talking about a visit they’d made here 20 years ago. As we neared the entrance, the man caught sight of a row of airport-style metal detectors.
“What are they doing?” he asked.
“Scanning for atheists,” I said. It was the first thing that came out of my mouth.
He looked uneasy and turned away, so I continued. “Yeah, that machine up there actually x-ray’s your soul. I’m sure they’ll see that mine’s withered and black. Maybe they’ll turn me away.”
We saw that couple again while taking an aperitif near the Piazza Barberini. They looked the other way as we walked past, and took a great interest in deciphering the menu.
Okay, let’s get back on topic. Spend a little time exploring St. Peter’s Basilica. It really is a beautiful building, especially when the afternoon light slants down from the dome. And you don’t have to be religious to appreciate it.
From there, walk straight down Via della Conciliazione, and grab a gelato on the way to bolster your strength. Castel Sant’ Angelo is on your left a couple blocks ahead. If you spent several hours in the Vatican Museum like I did, your feet are probably screaming blue murder by now. Grab a taxi back to your hotel. Or if you’ve still got some gas in your tank, cross the Tiber by the Pont Sant’ Angelo and have a wander down Via d. Governo Vecchio.
It’s a beautiful winding street of small shops and restaurants, and you could easily pass an afternoon examining their wares. Keep an eye on your map, and edge your way over towards the Piazza Navona. Cut across and you’ll end up at the Pantheon. The Trevi Fountain is in this neighborhood too. But don’t worry if the stolen treasures of the Popes completely wore you out—you can always walk over this way tomorrow.
If you’re staying near the Villa Borghese, grab a pizza and a cold beer at the Pizzeria San Marco (via Sardegna, 38/D). You won’t go wrong with their selection, and it’s a popular place with the locals as well.
Day 3—Wandering The Ancient World
You’re doing a bit more time-traveling today. Throw on your toga, lace up those sandals, and hop a subway for the concentrated remains of ancient Rome.
Get out at Colosseo station, but don’t go in the Colosseum right away. Follow the broad two-lane street towards the Capitoline Hill instead, and purchase your ticket at the entrance to the Forum. It’ll get you in to both places, and the line is usually much shorter down there.
Spend a few hours exploring the Forum and Palatine Hill. And rent the audio guide—it’s worth it. The clips contain a lot of information, so grab a seat on a stone as you reach each “station” and make sure you’ve got plenty of time. Reading about this place back home isn’t the same as listening to an explanation while standing in front of the real thing.
When you’ve finished with the Forum, walk back over to the Colosseum. The upper levels are open and you’re free to wander at will. But if you want to see the subterranean chambers beneath the arena floor you’ll have to join one of the organized tours.
You’re probably hungry enough to eat a hippo by now, so wander back towards the Capitoline Hill and keep your eyes to the right. As you round that one section of wall you’ll see a pile of pizza, pasta and sandwich joints where you can grab a quick bite. If you’re craving something different and have a bit more money to spend, the Argentine restaurant on that first block of Via Cavour makes a nice sit down lunch.
End your day by walking past the Forum entrance and up the winding road to the Capitoline Hill. You don’t want to miss the Musei Capitolini. They’ve got some important items here, including the bronze statue of the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus and marble sculptures of The Dying Gaul, Cupid and Psyche, and the Capitoline Venus.
That’s probably all you’ll have time for today. If you’re totally knackered, grab a taxi back to your hotel because the metro’s a long way away. If you’re still up for a stroll or you’re extremely stubborn about spending money, walk back through winding streets and broad Roman boulevards, and keep a close eye on your map. No doubt you’ll find some supper along the way.
Got An Extra Day?
Got an extra day? Great! There’s plenty more to see and do. But if you’re all museum-ed out, why not visit some of the continent’s top Eurocool shops?
The area around via Condotti is expensive, but it’s a great place to window shop and get some inspiration. When you’re actually ready to pull out your wallet, cross the Tiber and walk the length of Via Cola di Rienzo. It’s full of clothing stores and shoe shops, and it’s where both locals and visitors go to get their fashion fix.
So there you have it. A manic 3 day weekend in one of Europe’s coolest and most historic cities. I agree, it isn’t nearly enough time to take it all in. But hey, it’s a start. And if you tossed a coin into the Trevi Fountain, legend has it you’ll be back.
All photos ©Tomoko Goto 2012