Rome was not built in a day – it has thousands of years of history, which you will absorb into your bones if you stay long enough. However, most of us don’t have years to explore this magnificent museum of a city but instead maybe a couple of days at best. Envy Italy has put together a three-day tour to experience the essence of Rome which we hope will whet your appetite enough to have you come again soon to explore the city in more depth.
If you have less than three days then decide which are your must-dos. For most it’s the main famous landmarks: The Colosseum, Pantheon, Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, which are all walkable in one day. So stick with your most-wanted list and enjoy the streets in-between where there are hidden delights along the way. One big tip when wandering Rome is to pop into any church you pass, as most are a haven of hidden architectural and artistic excellence.
If the Vatican is on your list, be aware that this is away from the landmarks above so it definitely should be done on a pre-booked tour basis. The Vatican is huge and the full tour lasts three and a half hours. This is well recommended as there are so many fantastic details and backstories you will miss otherwise.
The Colosseum. Roman Forum. Cisco Massimo. Giardino degli Aranci. Vittorio Emanuele II Monument.
Our recommendations for Day 1 are quite close together so you could do a whirlwind tour of them and still have time to enjoy meandering the streets of Rome, do some shopping or to just soak up the atmosphere.
Start early and pre-book a ticket for The Colosseum. Following its fantastic years of restoration it is not to be missed. There is an audio tour but to be honest we recommend just reading the history beforehand (see our quick guide on envyitaly.com) rather than wasting time with the audio tour as it’s not great.
This is everything you expect Roman ruins to be. Right next to The Colosseum this area with ruins scattered all over it will be rather confusing if you don’t do your research first. It was the grand centrepiece of ancient Rome with temples, public areas and the political buildings of the Empire. Research the Casa delle Vestali, the Curia and the Arco di Settimio Severo which are all here in their ruin form and you can impress your friends with knowing which stones you are looking at.
It may at first glance just look like a very long dog walking or jogging track but this 600 m oblong field was the largest chariot racetrack and entertainment zone in ancient Rome with a seating area capable of holding 250,000 people (a quarter of the city’s population). A visit to Circo Massimo has been enhanced by the restoration of a small section of the original stadium, where visitors can now access the galleries and rooms to see the remains of ancient latrines, inns, shops, warehouses, laundries and betting stations.
Giardino degli Aranci
Parco Savello, better known as Giardino degli Aranci, is a small terrace on the Aventine overlooking the Tiber. This small walled park planted with ancient orange trees has one of the most beautiful views of the city and is one of the best places to watch the sun set over Rome.
Vittorio Emanuele II Monument
The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, also known as the Altar of the Fatherland, and nicknamed the wedding cake, is a monument built in honour of Victor Emmanuel II, who undertook the complex process of the unification of Italy throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and the first king of a unified Italy. It was inaugurated on 4 June 1911 and completed in 1935.
Its design is a neoclassical interpretation of the Roman Forum. It features stairways, Corinthian columns, fountains, an equestrian sculpture of Victor Emmanuel II and two statues of the goddess Victoria riding on quadrigas. The base of the monument houses the museum of Italian Unification, and in 2007 a panoramic lift was added to the structure, in which you can ride up to the roof for 360-degree views of Rome.
There’s a lot of walking today as the Vatican is huge! Either dedicate the morning or afternoon to it and pre-book tickets to avoid the queues.
Pantheon. Piazza Navona. Campo de’ Fiori. The Vatican.
The Pantheon is the most preserved and influential building of ancient Rome. A former Roman pagan temple dedicated to all the gods is now a Catholic church. It was completed by the emperor Hadrian and probably dedicated about 126 ad.
Its architecture boasts mathematical genius and simple geometry that today still impresses architects and amazes the eyes of visitors. Each year on Pentecost Sunday there is an ancient ceremony with the spectacular sight of thousands of rose petals fluttering down through the open oculus of the Pantheon following 10.30 a.m. Mass, symbolising the Holy Spirit’s descent to earth.
The Italian kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I, as well as the famous Renaissance painter Raphael and his fiancée, are buried in the Pantheon.
The most elegant public square is built on the site where the Stadium of Domitian was founded in 86 ad to which 20,000 spectators would come to see different athletic competitions. Now the square is surrounded by restaurants and terraces giving Piazza Navona a lively and delightful atmosphere during the day. Here you can enjoy lunch while watching street and portrait artists. The best parts of Piazza Navona are its three beautiful fountains, the central and most famous being Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) which was designed by Bernini in 1651. Its four statues represent the most important rivers of the continents where Christianity had spread: the Nile, Danube, the Ganges and Rio de la Plata.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, every summer the drains of the three fountains were blocked and the centre of the square was flooded to make the “Lake of Piazza Navona” for the enjoyment of the locals. Be sure to also visit the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone on the square.
Campo de’ Fiori
Historical fruit and vegetable market by day, Campo de’ Fiori becomes the nerve centre of nightlife in the evening. While now a place of night entertainment, for centuries Campo de’ Fiori was the main stage for public executions. Among those burnt at the stake here in 1600 was Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher whose theories anticipated modern science and whose statue dominates the centre of the square.
In the immediate vicinity, browse the traditional shops on the historic streets that still bear the names of the craftspeople who once worked there, such as Via dei Baullari, Via dei Cappellari or Via dei Giubbonari.
The Vatican is the oldest and smallest independent state in the world and the one with the greatest concentration of historic and architectural wealth. The seat of the pope’s earthly power, the Vatican is almost as rich in mysteries as it is in works of art. Start with Saint Peter’s Basilica – the largest church in the Catholic world – and its spectacular piazza with its monumental colonnade, designed by Bernini. Continue on to the Vatican Museums, the most visited in the world and containing one of the largest art collections on earth, comprising part of the enormous collection accumulated over the centuries by the popes. Visit the Sistine Chapel – with its extraordinary frescoes by Michelangelo as well as the Apollo Belvedere and Raphael’s Stanze – where the conclave is held and the new pope elected.
Today you will enjoy some more iconic sites of Rome with time to ramble between and buy a few souvenirs.
Trevi Fountain. Spanish Steps. Piazza del Popolo. Galleria Borghese.
Photos do not do the Trevi Fountain justice. Get up early and arrive while other tourists are still at breakfast to get an uncrowded photo. Don’t forget to throw your three coins (with your right hand over your left shoulder) into the 300-year-old fountain to ensure your return to Rome someday. The €2.4 million collected from the fountain each year is used to feed the homeless and needy of Rome.
With its irregular butterfly design, the beautiful “Scalina Spagna”, or Spanish Steps, were built to connect the lower Piazza di Spagna with the upper piazza Trinità dei Monti in 1723. Their unique design made it a popular place for artists, painters and poets, which attracted many women to the area hoping to be considered as muses and models. This in turn attracted travellers and rich Romans. Soon the steps became a popular meeting spot, as they still are today. A good place to take a rest and have a gelato.
Piazza del Popolo
During its history, this massive “square” has been a site for public executions, fairs, carnivals, games and competitions. At the centre is an obelisk (known as the Obelisco Flaminio), which is the oldest and second tallest in Rome, and the two Valadier fountains. However, it is the churches on the square that are worth the walk. While a visit to the twin churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto is worthwhile, do not miss a visit to the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Built on the burial site of Emperor Nero, it is an artistic treasure house with several major works, including two magnificent paintings by Caravaggio. Have lunch at the piazza before moving on to Villa Borghese for the afternoon.
Villa Borghese was the suburban residence of the Prinz Borghese family and a great example of a villa belonging to a great Roman family at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The gardens are a lovely place for a picnic, but be sure to pre-book your tickets for the Galleria Borghese art museum and discover the wonderful works of Bernini, Caravaggio, Raffaello and Canova (allow three hours for this).