Rome is known as the Eternal City, and when you visit, you’re going to wish you had an eternity to explore its beautiful, romantic, historic streets. But even if you’re short on time, you can pack a lot of sightseeing into just one day.
You won’t be alone in your efforts to squeeze the absolute most from your short time there. The city and its most popular tourist attractions are busy, crowded places. Thus, no matter where you go or what itinerary you follow, it pays to plan ahead. Purchasing skip-the-line tickets or a guided tour package where possible is a savvy investment to minimize the time you’ll spend waiting around. Of course, you could spend the whole day doing nothing but visiting gelato shops -- we’ve all been there -- so don’t be afraid to follow your heart and your stomach!
Here’s how to spend an amazing day in Rome.
Visit Vatican City, But Go Early
If a visit to Vatican City is of great spiritual importance to you, then by all means you should spend the bulk of your time there. But if your interest is more cursory, I recommend a different approach. I suggest you go early -- very early -- and leave early as well.
In Vatican City, you’re going to want to pass on the standard early skip-the-line tours. They all start 30 to 60 minutes before the Vatican opens to the general public at 9 a.m. As such, they all converge at the Vatican at the same time, and it gets crowded. Really crowded.
However, a few companies offer an extra-early tour starting at 7:30 a.m. or even 7 a.m. This is absolutely where you want to be, even if it’s a short tour. It will be much easier to hear your guide, and the light will be gorgeous for photography. This is about quality, not quantity. The short, super-early tours are much more moving and inspiring than those that last longer but start later.
Take A Self-Guided Tour Of The Colosseum
You simply can’t go to Rome and not visit the Colosseum. If your budget allows, then by all means spring for a guided tour. But you can save some money and make the most of your limited time by taking a self-guided tour using a guidebook -- there’s a great one in Rick Steves Pocket Rome that I really like. It will give you a sense of the scope and scale of this incredible building.
From the point of view of travel planning, it makes sense to visit the Colosseum after going to the Vatican. The two sites are actually quite a distance apart, and you’ll want to spring for a taxi. There will be plenty of time for walking later in the day as you make your way from the Colosseum to the center of town.
Meander Toward Campo De’ Fiori
Now it’s time to walk! On your way from the Colosseum to Campo de’ Fiori, you’ll pass by Palatine Hill, where Roman emperors once lived; the Circus Maximus, ancient Rome’s chariot-racing stadium; and the Roman Forum, ancient Rome’s civic center. Campo de’ Fiori is one of the main markets in Rome, and, while it is admittedly a bit touristy these days, it’s still a fun place to explore and grab snacks, pastries, and espresso.
Quickly Hit The Highlights
The Pantheon, the most complete ancient building in Rome, is just a quick walk away from Campo de’ Fiori via Piazza Navona, one of the city’s busiest squares and home to many a souvenir vendor. It’s a good starting point for seeing some of Rome’s most famous sites in quick succession. Admission to the Pantheon is free, and you can take in its unique architecture and history in 15 minutes. Heading eastward, you can also see the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.
Thanks to the Pantheon’s generous opening hours (Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.), this is a great walk to do in the early morning or early evening if you’re mixing up your schedule a bit. It’s also the kind of area you can easily check out before or after a guided city tour. Quite a few meet at the Spanish Steps thanks to the proximity of the nearby metro station.
Choose Your Own Adventure
If you’ve been tackling these attractions in order -- and have been walking with lots of enthusiasm -- you might have time to squeeze in one last activity in the afternoon.
Art lovers will want to see the highlights at the Galleria Borghese. You could easily spend half a day there, but even an hour or two will be richly rewarding, and for 9 euros, you can’t go wrong.
The Museo Nazionale Romano is a great place to put Rome’s remarkable history into context, and its proximity to Termini, Rome’s central station and main metro hub, makes it a convenient and accessible choice. It’s also a great place to take refuge in bad weather.
Otherwise, you could simply spend some extra time soaking in the city and doing what speaks to you, like window-shopping at the stores of legendary Italian designers or popping into tiny churches and even tinier espresso counters. Take some time to relax and enjoy the city.
Eating In Rome
There’s a bit of a bad joke that circulates among food writers, and it goes something like this: “Where should you eat when in Rome?” “McDonald’s.” The deadpan punch line refers to the fact that there are plenty of subpar restaurants in Rome (and no shortage of fast food establishments, either). But the birthplace of pasta carbonara is still chock-full of culinary gems -- you just need to know where to go.
Here are some of the best places to grab a bite in Rome.
Ristorante Di Rienzo
Ristorante di Rienzo is a good restaurant, but not a spectacular one. So why does it make this list? It’s got a gorgeous view of the Pantheon (they share a courtyard), and so it’s easy to find and very convenient. I really liked the spaghetti carbonara, too. You could do far worse for a restaurant in the heart of Rome’s tourist zone.
Alice Pizza has several locations around Rome. The shop sells small pieces of pizza by weight, making it the perfect choice for quick snacks or more substantial lunches. The company offers everything from the classic margherita pizza to eggplant pizza to potato pizza (shockingly delicious!). It also offers vegetarian and vegan options, and, in wine-loving Rome, this is one place where beer rules supreme.
Il Giardino Romano
Il Giardino Romano in Rome’s Jewish quarter serves up delicious Roman-Jewish cuisine like deep-fried artichokes, salted cod, and fried, stuffed zucchini blossoms.
Dispensa Cibo Urbano
Dispensa Cibo Urbano is a tiny café and food shop that I love to visit for smoothies, salads, sandwiches, cakes, pastries, and coffee.
Mastro Ciccia is a fantastic spot for homemade pizza and pasta and is a good choice for families.
Old Bridge Gelateria
Gelato shops abound in Rome, and Vatican City is no exception. Old Bridge Gelateria is right outside the Vatican’s main entrance, and, if you’ll pardon the pun, it’s truly heavenly. I had a rich blackberry gelato that I still dream about.
Shopping In Rome
Repeat after me: Do not buy any of the cheap trinkets for sale between Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps. This is not the place you want to spend your money! The shops in and around Campo de’ Fiori are a much better choice for souvenirs in terms of both price and variety.
While in Rome, you’re going to want to keep your eyes open for olive oil, balsamic vinegar, wine, cooking tools, and -- of course -- designer fashion items.
Here are some of the Eternal City’s best shops.
Via Della Reginella
On this neat little street, you’ll find a fascinating mish-mash of shops, including a hot-sauce vendor and a Harry Potter fan shop. Lots of fun!
Via Condotti And Via Borgognona
Everyone who’s anyone in Italian design has shops on these two streets not far from the Spanish Steps. Keep an eye out for Prada, Dior, Versace, Gucci, and so much more.
Every Sunday morning starting at 6 a.m., Rome’s mercato della pulci, or flea market, is set up here. There’s a lot of junk, but you can find treasures, too.
Almost Corner Bookstore
At Almost Corner Bookstore, one of Rome’s most popular English-language bookstores, you’ll find all the latest bestsellers in a cute shop on a narrow cobblestone street.
DOM, a gorgeous kitchen supply store, will have you vowing to make homemade pasta every day of the week.
Enoteca Costantini, an amazing wine store, boasts more than 4,000 labels, and, if temptation takes over, the employees can arrange for online orders and international deliveries.
If this small taste of Rome leaves you wanting more, there’s one surefire way to guarantee you’ll return. Visit the Trevi Fountain, turn your back on it, and, using your right hand, throw a coin over your left shoulder. Sure, it sounds like superstition, but it worked for me, and I bet it will work for you, too!
Once you've explored the Eternal City to your heart's content, be sure to visit some of these other iconic cities and regions.