French critic Hippolyte Taine wrote of Rome, “One could live here three or four years and still learn something. It is the greatest museum in the world. Every century has left it something.” While penned in 1866, those words hold true today.
Rome is a city of ancient monuments, Baroque sculptures, and charming piazzas, sprawled over its seven fabled hills. You could spend ages wandering the city’s narrow streets, admiring its vine-covered terra cotta buildings, and eating all of the pizza and pasta. However, if you don’t have that kind of time, with a bit of planning (and a good pair of walking shoes), it’s entirely possible to see Rome’s main attractions and get a sense of the glory of the Eternal City in a couple days, without feeling totally overwhelmed and confused.
Here’s your itinerary for two perfect days in Rome.
Day one: City center walking tour
You’re probably thinking, “all that in one day, are you insane?”
And yes, it may look a bit far and it sounds like a lot. However, the whole route is a total of six kilometers (about three and a half miles), which is spread out over the entire day. Plus, the beauty of many of Rome’s attractions is they don’t require a lot of time. For instance, you’ll probably spend 10 minutes looking at the Trevi Fountain and be ready to move on. Trust me, it’s totally doable and absolutely worth it.
As all of Rome is basically one big open air museum, this is a journey best done on foot. This allows you to really wander the pedestrian avenues and enjoy the beauty of the city. On the first day, start at the Colosseum and work your way to Piazza del Popolo, pausing for sightseeing along the way.
If walking that length is not an option for you, there are many buses around the center. The metro is an option as well, but if you’ve only got two days in Rome, it’s best spent above ground (and it’s best to avoid Termini Station as much as possible — it’s not in the best area, plus, it’s dirty and a hotbed of pickpockets).
Ready? Here’s the plan for day one.
Above: The Flavian Amphitheater, or more commonly known as the Colosseum
1. The Colosseum (Colosseo)
Make the Colosseum your first stop and be sure to get there early. It opens at 8:30 a.m. and you should be ready and waiting with your ticket in your hand when they open those gates (must make the most of these 48 hours!). As one of Rome’s most popular spots, it gets busy very quickly. There are some options for tours and “skip the line” tickets, which can be worth it depending on the time of year (if it’s the high tourist season, you may want to do this, but if it’s a slow time of year it’s probably not necessary). Either way, get in early and enjoy this ancient marvel that’s been standing for about 2,000 years.
Above: The Roman Forum in the evening
2. The Roman Forum (Foro Romano)
After you’ve finished at the Colosseum, head over to the Roman Forum. Make sure to have a good look at the Arch of Constantine (Arco di Costantino) on your short walk over there. Wander the ruins and imagine the hustle and bustle of millenia ago. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, walk through Palatine Hill, one of the most ancient parts of the city, just above the Roman Forum. One ticket gets you into the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill.
Above: View from the Terrazza delle Quadrighe atop Il Vittoriano in the winter.
3. Piazza Venezia
When you’ve finished at the Roman Forum, walk down Via dei Fori Imperiali to Piazza Venezia.
Piazza Venezia is the beating heart of Rome. Life swirls around the large traffic circle in front of Il Vittoriano (more formally ltare della Patria or Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II). The piazza connects the ancient monuments along Via dei Fori Imperiali with Via del Corso, the city’s most famous modern shopping street. A tram can quickly take you across the river to hip Trastevere to the west, or little buses can transport you up to Quirinal Palace toward the east. Take a moment here to simply enjoy the center of Roman life. If you’d like a lovely city view from above, take an elevator ride to the top of Il Vittoriano to the Terrazza delle Quadrighe.
At this point, you’ll probably be ready for lunch. Down a little side street off the piazza you’ll find L’Antica Birreria Peroni. This bustling local spot has amazing food (and plenty of birra alla spina). My favorite is the bucatini all’amatriciana.
Above: A fall afternoon in Piazza Navona
4. Piazza Navona
From Piazza Venezia, it takes about 10 minutes to walk to Piazza Navona.
Piazza Navona was once used as a stadium for horse racing and other competitions, hence its distinct long oval shape. Today, it’s a public square filled with vendors, tourists, and eateries (and a Christmas market during the holidays). Spend some time wandering the piazza, admiring the Bernini statues, and perusing the shops.
Above: A busy summer day at the Pantheon
5. The Pantheon
To get to the Pantheon, it’s a mere four minutes on foot from Piazza Navona.
A magnificent and imposing structure, the Pantheon is one of the best preserved ancient Roman buildings, and one of my favorite sights. This former temple, which has been in continuous use for all its history, is known for its large domed ceiling. There is no fee to enter, so wander in, admire the interior, and don’t forget to look up.
Above: Tossing a coin in the Trevi Fountain
6. Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi)
It’s another quick walk over to the Trevi Fountain, just about eight minutes from the Pantheon.
Somewhere between the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain you’ll probably be due for some gelato. Find a little shop on a side street and treat yourself. Bonus points for following the gelato with a coffee.
The Trevi Fountain is nearly always crowded. Spend some time taking in this beautiful Baroque fountain, and don’t forget to toss in a coin!
Above: View from the top of the Spanish Steps at Christmas
7. Spanish Steps (Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti)
Just another eight minutes on foot and you’re at the Spanish Steps.
The Spanish Steps connect Piazza de Spagna at the bottom with Piazza Trinità dei Monti at the top. There’s not much to do here but grab a seat on the steps, relax for a bit, and people watch.
Above: View of Piazza del Popolo’s obelisk and twin churches.
8. Piazza del Popolo
From the Spanish Steps, take a side street like Via dei Condotti or Via delle Carrozzee over to Via del Corso, then turn right to walk toward Piazza del Popolo. This isn’t exactly the most direct route, but take your time and peruse the shops along the bustling Via del Corso.
Before you reach Piazza del Popolo, pop into a shop and grab some snacks and drinks to take up to the gardens. (I recommend the porchetta sandwich shop and neighboring mini market on Via Angelo Brunetti, right off Via Del Corso.)
Piazza del Popolo is bordered by twin churches on one side and a large gate on the other, with an Egyptian obelisk in the center. Historically, the imposing gate was the northern entrance to Rome. Today, the square is a typical center of Roman life: street performers drawing a crowd, locals hanging about, and travelers wandering through.
Above: A spring afternoon at the Villa Borghese gardens
9. Villa Borghese gardens
The final stop of the day is the park surrounding Villa Borghese. From Piazza del Popolo, walk up the stairs on the northeastern side of the square; it’s to the left of the fountain, Fontana della Dea di Roma, on the side of the museum, Museo Leonardo da Vinci. The stairs lead you to Terrazza del Pincio, which offers wonderful views of the city.
Now all there is to do is wander into the park, find a spot to sit down, and relax. Remember your snacks and drinks you got before reaching Piazza del Popolo? Well, grab your sandwich, open a bottle of wine, and enjoy the rest of your Roman afternoon.
Day two: West of the Tiber River
There are far fewer stops on the agenda for day two, because the stops requires more time and attention than the whirlwind of sightseeing from day one. On day two, start at the Vatican museums and end in the charming old neighborhood of Trastevere.
Now on to day two. Here we go!
Above: Spiral staircase in the Vatican Museum
1. Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani)
Similar to the Colosseum, it’s important to get to the Vatican Museum first thing in the morning. The museum is fairly large and gets very crowded. There’s so much to see in the museum, but, of course, the main attraction is the Sistine Chapel. Make sure to take your time and enjoy all that the museum has to offer before gazing upward in awe at Michelangelo’s masterpiece. If it’s a busy time of year, you might want to book a tour that allows you to skip the lines in order to save time.
Above: Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square
2. St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica (Piazza San Pietro and Basilica San Pietro/Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano)
With some guided tours, you are taken straight from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica. If it’s the high tourist season, this is a big time saver. If not on a tour, you can exit the museum and walk around and enter from the front of the basilica.
After looking at all the magnificent art in the Vatican Museum, your brain can barely handle the incredible, ornate architecture that awaits you in the basilica. Do your best to simply soak it all in, then head out to St. Peter’s Square. Take some time to wander the piazza and enjoy the exterior views of the basilica. (If you want to see the pope, the public Papal Audience is held on Wednesdays and Sundays when the pope is in Rome, but keep in mind the area can be extra busy on those days.)
Above: Castel Sant’Angelo, with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in peeking up in the background
3. Castel Sant’Angelo
From St. Peter’s Square, it’s about seven minutes away on foot down Via della Conciliazione to Castel Sant’Angelo. If the Vatican was particularly busy, you may want to skip this and head straight to Trastevere. But if you’ve got the time, it’s worth a visit.
Castel Sant’Angelo was originally intended as a mausoleum for a Roman emperor, was then used as a fortress and castle for the popes, and is now a museum. The riverside building has seen its fair share of history and makes for an interesting visit, plus the rooftop affords some nice city views.
Above: View of the summer market along the Tiber River near Trastevere
From Castel Sant’Angelo, you have a few options to get to Trastevere: walk 25 minutes down the river, take a bus (there are a few that go that way), or take a taxi. I’d recommend the bus or taxi, as it’s not a particularly interesting walk, and your feet could probably use a rest. Just make sure to only get a taxi from an official taxi stand.
Now, you can conclude your time in Rome by relaxing in Trastevere. Trastevere isn’t usually a must-see for those visiting Rome for a short time, but it should be. The neighborhood of Trastevere is made up of narrow cobblestone avenues winding through pastel-colored facades, with ivy draped all around. Known as a more trendy part of town, it’s full of delicious restaurants and busy bars. It’s the perfect place to simply wander and enjoy Roman life.
Above: A bowl of bucatini from Gli Angeletti in the Monti neighborhood
Where to stay
When choosing where to stay in Rome, go for Monti or Trastevere.
Monti is located close to the Colosseum and has its own metro stop on the blue line, making it accessible to the rest of the city. Despite its convenience, Monti has somehow managed to stay under the radar. It’s a cool, fun neighborhood that doesn’t see too many tourists, considering how close it is to the center. Staying here puts you conveniently close to the Colosseo, the start of day one.
In terms of public transportation, Trastevere is only accessible by tram or bus. Without a metro stop, it’s not as easy to access from the rest of the city. However, this classically hip neighborhood is perfect for getting a taste of la dolce vita. Plus, finishing day two in this part of town makes it an easy place to hang your hat.
Above: An air show on the Italian National Day (Festa della Repubblica)
Some other tips for a pleasant short visit
-Try the traditional Roman pastas: cacio e pepe, amatriciana, carbonara.
-Bring good walking shoes! As mentioned, Rome is a city best experienced on foot.
-As is true when visiting any foreign country, remember to be a considerate guest. Take some time to learn a couple phrases in Italian. The effort will be appreciated.
-Simply, be patient and polite. Life in Rome may not move as quickly as you’re used to, but that’s the beauty of it. Slow down, ignore the hour, and immerse yourself in this wonderful city.