Everyone should visit Italy at some point in their lives. As the capital, with all its sites and major airport, Rome is very likely going to be a part of that visit. Whether you can give the Eternal City just a few hour excursion from your cruise or (like in my case) several years, here is an idea of how to prioritize that time.
Rome in a Day
While it’s hard to give a major capital city justice in just a day, something is better than nothing. I imagine most day trippers are just trying to squeeze in another city between trains, flights, or they are on a cruise excursion. For such a short visit, your priority should be the Colosseum and the Vatican. If you have a night here as well, then there are a few others you might also try to see after hours.
The Colosseum and Roman Forum
The Colosseum and the Roman Forum are a joint ticket. If you want to enter both, it makes sense to go to the Roman Forum first because the line is always shorter. Here you buy the joint ticket, enjoy the Forum, and then exit near the Colosseum. The Colosseum itself always has a long line, but you have already bought your ticket, so you walk right past all the other people waiting to the turn-style and go right inside.
If you are rushed, don’t want to buy the ticket, or just are not very excited about Ancient Roman ruins, then you can enjoy half of the experience of visiting these sites from outside. You wont get to see the inside, but you will have “seen the Colosseum”. It is more stunning from the outside anyway. The Roman Forum is easy to see into from Via dei Fori Imperiali or from Capitoline Hill. You wont get to walk on the paving stones that Caesar once walked on, or see every aspect of the ruins, but you will see a lot of them.
If you can avoid it, don’t buy anything from the food trucks in this area. Their food is about the most expensive that you can find in all of Italy; even Michelin Star restaurants don’t charge that much for water. And worse, it is so, so horrible. I think their monopoly on the area must be mafia enforced; that is the only explanation I can come up with on why no one offers anything better to eat in such a heavily trafficked area.
Walking between the Vatican and Colosseum, you should try to stop at the Pantheon. The Pantheon is important because it was built by the Ancient Romans, but rather than fall out of use and into disrepair with the rise of Christianity, this temple was converted into a church dedicated to martyrs. So it doesn’t look like a ruin, it looks amazing. Its domed roof was built about 1,500 years earlier than the famous architectural masterpiece that is Florence’s dome and served as its inspiration. You can also visit the tombs of two out of Italy’s three kings, Queen Margarita (the namesake of margarita pizza), and the Renaissance artist Raphael. It is free, so there are no lines, people just walk in and out. Though it does close at sunset.
You may be ready for a snack by now. There is a great Gelateria right near the Pantheon, Della Palma (like a palm tree). With the Pantheon behind you, walk straight across the square, slightly to your right, and down about two blocks. You can also get an iced espresso at Tazza d’Oro. With the pantheon behind you, go a bit to the right, it is just on the outside of the square. From Tazza d’Oro, if you keep going straight (or as straight as you can) on that street, you will arrive at the Trevi Fountain, but I recommend saving that for night time, after the other sites are closed.
Vatican City, for our purposes, consists of St. Peter’s Cathedral, which is located in St. Peter’s Square, Castle St. Angelo, and the Vatican Museums. The Vatican Museums are where you would see the Sistine Chapel, or you will, anyway. On your next visit when you have more time.
You will normally have to wait in a quick-moving line to enter St. Peter’s because everyone must pass through a metal detector. This line will be longer on Sundays and Wednesdays, when the Pope makes an appearance. He generally takes summers off and goes on lots of trips. For more accurate information on Pope Frank’s activities, it’s better to check here.
The cathedral itself is breathtaking. It was designed to feel both impressive and intimate; things farther up are larger to confuse your perception of distance. And everywhere you turn is famous art like the Pietà (immediately to your right when you enter). If you are Catholic, the importance of this place as the center of the Catholic world and the resting place of St. Peter will add a wonderful spiritual element to your experience. If you are not, you will still be able to appreciate the architectural and artistic accomplishment that is all around you.
With a little extra time and a donation, you can go down to the catacombs or up to the roof. I like the roof better. You can pay a little more to take an elevator to the level of the main roof. Everyone has to take the stairs from the main roof to the top of the dome. Climbing these stairs, you are between the inside and outside walls of the dome. The walls quickly become slanted, soon you are in a tiny passageway, then finally an improbable spiral staircase before coming out on the very top of the dome. It is a beautiful view and a memorable experience. Though, I would not recommend it for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia.
If you are somehow ahead of schedule, leave St. Peter’s Square via the central opening and continue down that street until you reach the river. Here you will find Castle St. Angelo and the angel bridge just across from it.
Rome at Night
Having been a diligent tourist all day, and assuming you don’t have to rush to a train, you can now enjoy the Eternal City at night. Take a breath and take in the city itself. The fast pace of the capital clashing with the slower Italian pace of life. The Italians, always wearing one more layer than the foreigners. The immigrant street vendors. The police and carabinieri (military police). The street performers– who are actually quite good. The crazy car traffic. Everything that is the city itself, beyond the list of sites.
There are a few open-air, always-open, free sites that are good places for this reflection. Primarily these are the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, and Piazza Navona. Each of which are stunning Renaissance works that were designed by their makers to be in these very places. So rather than seeing them in a museum, you are seeing their work exactly as the artist intended.
Done in this order, you will have started your day in Ancient Rome (Colosseum, Roman Forum), transitioned (Pantheon) to the dawn of Christianity (Vatican), and ended in the Renaissance (Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona). Witnessing about 25-hundred-years of civilization develop in a single day.
Rome in a Week
If you have just a little more time, I would separate the Ancient Roman stuff from the Vatican and consider buying a Roma Pass. This card includes the Colosseum, Forum, and a handful of other sites. It also functions as an unlimited Metro Pass and lets you skip all the lines for the sites that it includes (not the Vatican).
If you have the Roma Pass, you don’t need to worry about lines and it may make more sense to go to the Colosseum first (there is a Metro stop right there) and the Forum afterwords. Since you have a little time, and there is nothing good to eat in the area anyway, have a packed lunch ready and enjoy it in Palatine Hill. Palatine Hill is simply a section of the Roman Forum, which is a bit more spread out and park-like. It is in the same enclosure as the Forum.
Continuing in the same direction down Via dei Fori Imperiali (from the Colosseum, through the Roman Forum), you will arrive at Piazza Venezia and the white marble monument to Italian patriarchy. Go ahead inside and take a look at the view from the steps. You can also go inside and get a higher vantage point.
If you walk all the way around the monument you will arrive at Capitoline Hill (the monument is built into the backside of the hill). The square at the top here, Campidoglio, was designed by Michelangelo. Straight ahead of you is Rome’s city hall and the mayor’s office. Go around the back of that building and there is a great view down into the Roman Forum. On the two sides of Campidoglio square are the two buildings of the Capitoline Museums, which are included in the Roma Pass and worth a walk through. The museum buildings are lovely Renaissance palaces, with remains of older churches underneath; a nice setting for all the art inside.
Vatican City – St. Peter’s
My advice for Vatican City is pretty similar to that for day-trippers. Though you might have time to go both up to the roof and down to the catacombs. You may also want to visit Castle St. Angelo, featured in Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons,” and the bridge across from it, which is famous for the Angel statues that decorate it.
You have the luxury of choosing which day you go to St. Perter’s, so do it wisely. If you want to see the Pope, you probably want to go on a Wednesday or Sunday, although he isn’t always home, so check. If you want to avoid the Pope and the crowds he attracts, avoid those days.
Vatican City – The Vatican Museum
The Vatican Museum is a very big and amazing museum. It is comparable to the Louvre, Met, Smithsonian. I mean, it’s really big! Most people rush through it just to see the Sistine Chapel, like they rush to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. I think this is such a shame, to walk right by rooms with works by the great masters without sparing a glance. In fact, for short visits, I recommend skipping the Vatican Museum all together and spending a little more time enjoying the art inside St. Peter’s Basilica or just not being so rushed overall. However, it is a great museum, so if you can give it a little time to do it right, then you should go! It will take you a full day to walk through every exhibit, so it makes sense to look at their website and prioritize rooms based on your time and interests. Go in with a game plan.
The last rooms of the Vatican Museums are the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. The Raphael Rooms are frescoes, and my favorite part of the museum. They are so beautiful and realistic, and thinking that he had to finish them racing against the plaster drying blows my mind away. The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was painted by Michelangelo and, of course, features the Creation of Adam. This is also a functioning chapel. This is the room where the Cardinals get locked in for conclave, where they choose the next pope.
The Vatican Museum always has an incredibly long line. Always. There is no beating it, by coming early or late. But luckily they have recently started accepting online ticket orders. There is a fee, but this will likely save you hours waiting in line. Buy your tickets online. Everyone that I give this advice to is always hesitant to pay extra, then they are so glad they did when they see how horrifyingly long the lines really are. Here is the real website for buying tickets to the Vatican Museum.
The Main Streets of Rome
Rome’s closest thing to a main street is Via Del Corso. This partially-pedestrian street runs from Piazza del Popolo (and the park Villa Borghese) to Piazza Venezia (and the alter to patriarchy). Along the way it comes close to the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, Rome’s modern Senate, and the Spanish Steps.
From Piazza del Popolo, you can go one way up the steps to Villa Borghese or the other across the river on Via Cola di Rienzo. Villa Borghese was once a noble “country estate” and is now the main park in Rome. The gardens are full of ponds, fountains, and even a horse racing track. The Borghese family came from Siena where they are very into horse racing. You can rent group bicycles here if you wish. You can also visit the Borghese Gallery, but this museum requires an advance reservation. On the other side, Via Cola di Rienzo will take you over the river and to Vatican City. This is a good street for shopping (so is Via del Corso). If you want a delicious snack or meal, from Cola di Rienzo turn right on Via Marcantonio Colonna (near Metro Lepanto) and get an Arancini (fried risotto ball) from Mondo Arancina, then a gelato or canoli from the gelateria Gelarmony one door down. Not the healthiest lunch, but delicious!
Just south of the Coloseum is Circo Massimo. There is not much still standing now, but once it was a race track (for chariot racing) and field grounds (for events that became the model for circuses).
On the side of Circo Massimo closer to the river is the church that holds the Mouth of Truth (Bocca del Verita), for any “Roman Holiday” fans. It is outside the church, but inside a gate. So you can see it anytime, but to take a picture with your hand in its mouth, get there before sunset.
From here you can walk up Palatino Hill. On top of which are the Orange Gardens, with a nice view over the city of Rome and the Vatican. Continue a little and there is a building where you might see a line of people waiting to look through the key hole. Look through and you’ll see the gardens inside leading to a balcony and the dome of St. Peter’s right in front of you. If you continue you will get to the Rose Gardens, open only April 21 to June 15, 8:30 to 19:30. Then end up back down at Circo Massimo again.
From here, if you’re a good walker, you could get dinner at La Villetta dal 1940 (Viale della Piràmide Cèstia, 53, Rome). This restaurant serves authentic Roman food at reasonable prices. It is also frequented by celebrities. I saw the captain of A.S. Roma, Francesco Totti there once.
Trastevere literally means across the river. I could spend every evening here, walking the narrow winding streets and trying new restaurants and gelaterias. This is where Italians go when they come to the city center for an evening out. Since restaurants are kept in business by regulars, rather than one-time tourists, you will eat much better for much more reasonable prices in this area. Making it the perfect place to head after the museums close to find dinner and enjoy a “passeggiata” (stroll). There is also a wide selection of pubs and nightlife. To get started, find Ponte Sisto (Sisto Bridge) or Isola Tiberina (Tiber Island) and just get lost wandering the little streets on the “Vatican” side of the Tiber River. If you are visiting in the summer, there is an Expo of temporary bars, market vendors, and restaurants specializing in happy hour all set up along the river banks by Tiber Island. The Expo is the place to be at night in the summer.
If Rome is your last stop, you might be looking to get some souvenirs or other shopping. Consider Rome’s largest market, Porta Portese. It is held every Sunday morning at the Porta Portese, the ancient door that once lead to the city of Portus. It is a 15 minute walk from Metro stop Piramide. This very large open market sells everything: shoes, t-shirts, used clothing, jewelry, scarves, electronics, photo frames, food specialties, books, kitchen supplies, furniture, you name it and there is a booth selling it.
Rome has a lot to see, but there are also lots of nice places nearby for the traveler with a few extra days. Rome prides itself on being the only capital in Europe with a beach and there are also lakes and medieval hill towns nearby. These are conveniently connected by commuter train lines.
Ostia is the western edge of the municipality of Rome, right on the sea. You get here by taking the Metro to Piramide, then go above ground to board a train to Ostia. This is like a transfer, and you don’t need a new ticket. The trains leave every 20-minutes and it takes about 40-minutes. You can get off at either Lido Nord or Lido Centro and you are in Ostia. Under 2km/25-minutes walking (or you can take a bus) will get you to Faber Beach, a free beach were you can rent an umbrella and bed if you want or just use your own for free. Alternatively, you can walk just 9-minutes straight to the water from Lido Centro and pay a small fee to enter. These are city beaches, so they can be crowded. But they are crowded with Italians and provide great people watching. If you are going to Cinque Terre or the Almalfi Coast during your trip, those mountain-side beaches are much more picturesque.
There is also Lake Bracciano. The two prettiest towns on the lake are Anguillara and Bracciano. Bracciano is up on the hillside from the lake. It features a castle and sweeping views of the countryside. You can take a hike down to the lake below; you’ll pass olive orchards and small farms along the way. Anguillara is a little cuter, in my opinion. The old city center is built along the slope that leads down to the lake. It also features a lovely path along the lake edge with views across to Bracciano or up along the side of the city and its layers of stone houses. There is a little beach area where those who want can sun bathe, but this isn’t a popular swimming spot.
To get to Lake Bracciano, you take the Metro to Piramide, just like for Ostia. This time walk over to the attached train station, Stazione Ostiense. You will need to buy a ticket from either a machine or counter (biglietteria). Board a FM3 train in direction Viterbo. Get off at either Bracciano or Anguillara. Both stations are slightly outside the historical centers. You should take a bus to the center, than another to see the other city. At the end of the day, take the only train there is back to Roma Ostiense.
Rome in a Lifetime
You may be lucky enough to be spending an extended period in Rome, whether a semester abroad, part of a gap year, a sabbatical, summer off, you just moved here, or whatever your situation.
In this case, in terms of site-seeing you will probably be interested in mostly the same sites a visitor for a week would see. You can enjoy them more slowly and take advantage of special free days and limited exhibits. These can be found in the Tourism and Culture sections of the city of Rome’s website. You can also look into sights off of the beaten path that meet you own personal interests. For example, I enjoy learning about the history of the aristocracy in Europe, so I really enjoyed the Museum at Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.
You also have the chance to use Rome as your base city to see more of Italy or Europe. Train tickets are cheaper bought in advance, considerably cheaper. Compare both Trenitalia and Italo, the new private company. Plane tickets with low-cost European airlines, like Easyjet or Ryanair, also offer great deals when you buy in advance.
Since you are spending a longer time, you may be worried about housing, working, meeting people, and speaking Italian. Enrolling in Italian language classes can solve nearly all of these problems. Being a student is the easiest way to make friends. Enroll in a larger school to increase your chances of finding people around your age who share your interests, also they will be able to provide classes at more specific skill levels. Schools can also set you up with a place to stay (it won’t come cheap, but this is by far the easiest way). And of course, you’ll be improving your Italian, which will improve your overall experience in Italy.
For working, the easiest gig for a native-English speaker is to teach English classes. You can find these jobs easily, both above and “under the table” situations. Just be prepared to have to brush up on your grammar and to have to spend time preparing for classes. You will also likely make friends with your fellow teachers.
Hostels sometimes hire travelers for temporarily work, often for a small salary and free stay. This will take care of your pocket money and housing in one shot. You will have ready access to people to go out sight seeing with, though less potential long-term friends.
There are plenty of sites with help wanted listings. Wanted In Rome is one of these. You can look for English teaching jobs here as well as nanny, business, and other types of work aimed at English speakers.
If you want to keep working in your chosen field when in Rome, and your current company isn’t able to offer you that option, then it can be more difficult. I think the best way is to use LinkedIn to look for companies hiring in your field. Even better, use it to find connections you already have to people at companies with offices in Rome.
It can be very difficult to meet people when living abroad. The language barrier may keep you from making a strong connection with locals. The expats and travelers are often just staying temporarily. Meetup is one way to find people who share you interests, from something specific like photography to general topic groups like wine lovers. Personally, I go to the happy hours hosted every Tuesday by Expats Living in Rome, who also organize language lessons.
Finding a place to stay can be a real challenge. You probably can’t read the listings because of the jargon and abbreviations not even recognized by Google Translate. You don’t know where any of these neighborhoods are. And everyone wants a 2-year lease.
It’s overwhelming. One thing to keep in mind is that short-term rentals (less than 1-2 years) are mostly handled under the table, so they are not listed online. You need to go to the bulletin boards at universities, read the fliers, and call people.
Airbnb, and similar sites like HouseTrip and 9 Flats are great places to find a place to stay for a medium-length of time. They can also be great places to stay when you first arrive, while you try to find that long term apartment. If you are in the spare room of a local, that person can be a great asset to getting your bearings in a new city.
Europeans use Trip Advisor and Booking almost exclusively when looking for hotels, and you should too. Whether planing a weekend trip outside Rome or looking for a place to stay when your first arrive. Hostel aggregators like Hostels.com and HostelWorld are also good resources for finding a short-term place to stay. You will notice these two sites have a very high overlap of listings. All four of these sites are powered by user reviews, allowing you to make the best choice. You can even stay with me.
If you want something legal and longer-term you can try these sites:
- Porta Portese – Rome want ad’s
- Subito – Italian want ads
- Immobilare.it – Everything to do with real estate, including renting and buying houses
- Kijiji– Want ads powered by Ebay
In terms of neighborhoods. Your first choice is probably the historical center, anything inside the Aurelian Wall. Beyond that, you will get around easier if you are close to a Metro stop. The cool places to live are Trastevere and San Lorenzo. You will need to learn the Tram and Bus systems if you live here (no easy metro), but you can stay in your neighborhood for great food and nightlife.
On a positive note, rentals are always furnished in Italy, so that is one less thing to worry about.
Rome is an amazing city. Its central location and airport make it easy to fit into your vacation or strategic to make your base city for a longer time abroad. It is such an important city with so many iconic sites that you will want to see it, even for just a day, at some point in your life. Its endless list of things to do and places to see also make it a good choice for a longer stay; I’ve been here 4-years and still have sites that I want to visit.