Planning Your Stay in Rome
There's a reason most travelers to Rome rush to see its many ruins; when it comes to ancient history the capital is unparalleled, with preserved foundations, intact buildings, and museums full of archaeological finds that make the past come alive. The Colosseum and the Roman Forum can be breezed through in a single afternoon or discovered more intimately on a tour, and you'll definitely want to check them off your bucket list if you have limited time.
Once you expand your trip to a couple of days, however, you’ll be able to delve into what makes this city so attractive to locals, exploring neighborhoods like Trastevere or hiring a guide or local expert to show you the best places to eat Roman delicacies. You can even take a stab at making your own pizza or gelato in a cooking class, and travel outside the city for a glimpse at seaside, lakeside, or countryside.
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Rome in 1 Evening
If you’ve got just 1 afternoon or evening in Rome, don’t make a beeline for the Vatican. With its crowds and long lines, it’s the kind of destination that requires a bit more planning and free time than you’re likely to have. Your first stop will undoubtedly be the Colosseum or the Roman Forum, both impeccably preserved ancient ruins that will give you just a taste of what’s to come in your travels through Italy.
The Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheater, constructed in 70-80 AD, was the center of Roman spectacle, a showcase for gladiator competitions, fights between man and beast, and even epic sea battles, for which the structure could be flooded. A bit more civilized, the Roman Forum was the center of government, with administrative buildings and open spaces where citizens could meet, hold court, and discuss the important issues of their day. These two structures are just as mesmerizing at dusk as they are during the day, so you can and should consider fitting in a visit after a satisfying pasta dinner.
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Rome in 24 Hours
Although you could easily spend an entire day just at the Colosseum and Forum, there are plenty of other historic and modern sights to keep you occupied. Head to the Capitoline Museums – a cluster of art institutions named after the hill they’re built on – full of ancient sculptures like the iconic statue of the She Wolf – the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, twins who went on to found the city - as well as bronzes and marbles integral to Roman history.
If you only have 1 full day and the Vatican is high on your list, work with a guide to gain special access to the collections, or buy tickets that allow you to skip the loine (for a price, of course). But don’t just get stuck underneath the Sistine Chapel ceiling (though it’s hardly a bad place to spend some time). The Vatican is a teeming wonderland of treasures, well worth exploring even in areas the crowds don’t reach (and all the better for you). Take a special tour that focuses on architectural marvels like the winding Bramante Staircase, or the Cabinet of Masks, a grand hall with a mosaic floor depicting Roman masks.
You can also take an exclusive tour of the Vatican Gardens or St. Peter’s Basilica, two crucial components of the Vatican, which can seem like an entire country unto itself because, in fact, it is: the smallest sovereign state in the world, it's richer in culture than many countries twice its size.
Want to construct a purely art-focused Italian itinerary? Check out this guide.
Rome in 2-3 Days
If you have another day, consider spending some of it exploring the city on your own: you can wander the trendy area around the Spanish Steps, where a collection of shops, cafes, and gelaterias offer a taste of the city and the chance to take home some local Roman fashions. Pick up Roman delicacies – cheeses, meats, and seasonal produce – at the buzzing Campo de’ Fiori market, then walk over to the Piazza Navona – a bustling square with three sumptuous fountains, including the 17th-century Fountain of the Four Rivers – to enjoy your spoils with an outdoor picnic. If you’re into up-and-coming neighborhoods, check out Trastevere, once a working-class surburb and now full of traditional Roman trattorias and pulsating nightclubs, or Monti, an eclectic, central area full of wine bars and boutiques.
With 2 or 3 full days in Rome, the cultural possibilities beyond the Vatican are endless. Take a guided tour underground to visit Rome’s crypts and catacombs, an endless warren of subterranean burial chambers with a history practically as long as that of Rome itself and a spooky, eerie beauty that can veer downright macabre (some rooms are decorated with early Christian frescoes, others with skulls). If you’d rather stay above ground and firmly among the living, you can arrange to tour grand buildings housing art collections like the Villa Borghese, surrounded by gardens, or the Villa Giulia. The baroque, 14th-century Palazzo Colonna is chock full of gilded rooms, including the Princess Isabella Apartment, and paintings galleries.
Learn more about getting off the beaten path in Rome with this guide.
Rome in 4-5 Days
With an even longer amount of time in Rome, you can join a tour that allows you to see the city through a new lens, or take a cooking class to gain skills you can bring home with you. Hire a guide to lead you through the tasty local delicacies within a certain neighborhood, or join a class to learn how to make traditional Roman pasta dishes like cacio e pepe (simple but stunning cheese and black pepper), carbonara (a beloved mix of egg, pancetta, and parmesan) or amatriciana (tomato sauce with guanciale or pork jowl). With kids on hand, you may want to veer towards pizza-making or gelato-churning; both typical Italian delicacies with endless varieties that even younger children will enjoy putting together.
With this many full days in Rome, you may also want to opt for a daytrip. That’s because there are so many enticing destinations within an easy distance of the city that can give you a new perspective on how ancient Romans and modern Italians live, along with some fresh air and sea breezes.
One of these, the port town of Ostia, offers the perfect mix of leisure and history. Here, you can stroll on a popular beach where locals spend their summers, and pop into seaside restaurants making the most of the catch of the day. But it’s also where Romans have been going for centuries, and that means you’ll also have plenty of ancient wonders to visit at Ostia Antica, the modern city’s ancient counterpart. It includes a museum full of statues and frescoes, an ancient amphitheater, public baths, and the foundations of the city’s main street in ancient times, once lined with shops and arcades.
Another daytrip option is Castel Gandolfo, a tiny village on the crystal-clear crater lake Albano, home to the Pope’s summer residence as well as many other beautiful villas. You can tour the residence (Pope Francis has given it up in favor of more humble dwellings) as well as the surrounding, landscaped Barberini Gardens, wander the town, and take a paddle boat out onto the lake for some fresh breezes and views of the countryside. Don’t forget a picnic!