How to spend one day in Rome, Italy
One day itinerary for Rome
Cobbled streets, world-famous landmarks and thousands of years of history make Rome one of the most fascinating and beautiful places to visit in the world. With so much to experience, your first trip should really be a broad exploration of as many of the sights as possible. Luckily, legend has it that throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain will ensure that you return to Rome again. That means if your first trip feels like just a scratch on the surface, you can rest assured knowing another trip is on the horizon.
Although the weather in Rome varies greatly, it’s highly likely that you’ll visit Rome when the sun is shining. My first tip for travellers is to keep a refillable water bottle with you at all times. Helpfully, the city of Rome is bursting with drinkable water fountains so you can refill for free on the go. This knowledge comes in handy because if you follow the rest of this guide, you’ll be walking around. A lot.
1. Start at Trastevere
During my last trip to Rome, I stayed in Trastevere. It’s simple to get to from the airport and is walking distance to all the major sights that Rome has to offer. What’s more, there’s an energetic vibe here, you’ll find bars, cafes and restaurants dotted throughout the streets and in the evening the atmosphere only intensifies. By night, you’ll find plenty of options for food and drinks and the streets become lined with vendors selling their wares. In this neighbourhood it’s easy to start your morning with an authentic Italian coffee and biscotti from a local cafe; ‘when in Rome’ as they say.
2. Vatican City
The first port of call should be a walk to the Vatican City. Depending on where in Trastevere you stay, you should be able to walk along the River Tiber until you reach your city-state destination. Head to the north side of the Vatican in order to gain access to the place, but make sure you buy tickets online in advance. The queue of people to buy tickets is by far the longest queue I have ever seen, so you’ll feel like a celebrity when you skip it with your pre-purchased tickets. The level of security at the entrance is extremely high, so expect to have your bag searched and to walk through body scanners much like security at an airport.
Once you’re inside you’ll be able to walk the long and impressive hallways of the Vatican museum. There is so much to see here that it’s almost overwhelming, but if you’re looking to explore Rome in a day, head for St Peter’s Basilica. Keep in mind that the Basilica is a holy place which means the dress code is more rigid than the rest of Rome. Shorts or skirts above the knee are usually a no-no and vests or tops that reveal your shoulders are not allowed either. A visit to the Basilica alone is free but the museum ticket is also your ticket to see the Sistine Chapel, and no visit to the Vatican City would be complete without seeing it.
As a general observation, the place is so busy that you experience most of it like a tin can caught in a current. You’ll know where to go because everyone else is going there too. Take some time to appreciate the magnificence of the Basilica itself, there’s art and history everywhere and one unexpected highlight for me was stumbling upon Michelangelo’s Pietà (a sculpture of the body of Jesus across Mary’s lap after the crucifixion) in the north aisle of the Basilica. How anyone can make solid stone look like light, flowing fabric I have no idea. Once you’ve explored the Basilica, follow the crowds to the Sistine Chapel. It’s impossible to describe what it’s like to be in this chapel, so I’ll leave it for you to experience yourself. It’s probably the busiest place in Rome, so expect to be funnelled in by security and packed like a sardine as you gaze around the room at some of the most famous images in the world. That said, silence is enforced which creates a really surreal experience.
If time allows, head down to the crypt before you leave the Basilica, as the final resting place of many Popes it’s fascinating and definitely a major part of the cultural significance of the Basilica. Step outside to gather your thoughts in St Peter’s Square. There’s not much to do here, but it’s impressive and something you’ll want to look at and photograph for the gram. When you’ve seen enough, turn your back to the Basilica and walk straight down the road and head for the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II bridge which will be on your right.
3. Piazza Navona
From the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II bridge, it’s about a 10 minute walk to Piazza Navona. The general rules of tourism apply here (as well as many other places in Rome) so hold on to your valuables, beware pickpockets and if you do decide to eat or drink around here, expect huge tourist prices for average quality food. To see as many sights in Rome as possible, I’d recommend simply passing through Piazza Navona to grab a few photos. It’s a beautiful square and if you have more time later you can return for a coffee or a beer.
Walk through the Piazza from north to south and you’ll be able to head left at the very end and walk about 3 minutes to find the Pantheon.
The Pantheon is completely free and has no queues, so wander straight in and marvel at this ancient building. Built in 125 AD, the dome was the inspiration for Michelangelo’s dome in St Peter’s Basilica. The oculus (a hole at the very top of the dome) is the only source of natural light and you’ll notice by looking down that the floor is slightly sloped and there are drains to catch the rainwater when needed. Once inside, the Pantheon is not a huge building, so you can walk around the whole thing in no time at all. An easy sight to check off the list.
Outside the Pantheon is the Piazza Della Rotonda, this is another bustling square filled with cafes, restaurants and shops. Wander through some of the side streets to explore more of the smaller local shops. Watch out for locals dressed in ancient Roman costume, they’ll entice you for a photo but expect a fee in return.
5. The Trevi Fountain
Just eight minutes walk from the Pantheon is the Trevi Fountain. Recently refurbished by none other than esteemed fashion house Fendi, the Trevi Fountain is yet another of the marvels of Rome that attracts throngs of visitors. By this point in time, you’ve probably seen photos of the Trevi Fountain countless times, but no photo will ever capture the magnificence of this spectacular fountain. Once you’re here, make sure you throw a coin over your left shoulder with your right hand to ensure you return to this beautiful city.
6. Altare della Patria
Having seen so many ancient architectural wonders, it’s time for a brief respite to see something a bit more modern. On your journey from the Trevi Fountain to the Roman Forum, take a walk past the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland). Construction started in 1885, so by contrast to the rest of the sights this grand building is ultra modern and very hard to miss. This is another quick sight to see, stop for a photo, absorb its magnificence and then be on your way.
7. Roman Forum
The Roman Forum (Foro Romano) sits behind the Altare della Patria and comprises a collection of ancient ruins of varying ages. A standard ticket covers entry to the Roman Forum but also covers entry to the Colosseum and nearby Palatine Hill. This ticket lasts for two days, so you can get a sense of the place to begin with and revisit if you’d like to experience more of the detail. It’s here that you’ll really feel a part of such an ancient city.
8. The Colosseum
Having walked through the Roman Forum, the last place left to explore is the world-famous Roman Colosseum. This incredible landmark is as impressive from the outside as it is from the inside. If you really don’t have much time left in Rome, I’d recommend that you don’t go inside. There’s loads to see and learn, but the outside of the Colosseum is spectacular enough for your first trip, and I’d argue that standing outside the Colosseum certainly counts as good enough to tick it off your bucket list.
Once inside, there is not a huge amount to do. It’s an incredible structure and the historical significance is palpable, but if you don’t take a guided tour or audio tour, you’ll have had your fill pretty quickly.
Where to eat
Giolitti – quite possibly the best gelato in all of Rome
Transport in Rome
Rome is absolutely beautiful which makes walking between sights a pleasure. The sights I’ve outlined are fairly close together which also makes things easier on the feet.
I flew from London to Fiumicino Airport (FCO) and caught the train directly from the airport to Roma Trastevere. From here it was only a five minute walk to get to our Airbnb and I was pleased with how easy the journey was.
Make a weekend of it
The first time I visited Rome, I skipped the opportunity to climb to the top of St Peter’s Basilica. The next time, I made sure it was the top of my priority list and I was not disappointed. The ticket to enter the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel does not include the climb to the top of the Basilica, which means you can do them separately if you wish.
In total, there are 551 steps to climb before you reach the top. There are two reasons I highly recommend doing this climb. The first, is that you’ll find yourself inside the dome of St Peter’s Basilica providing an incredible view of the inside of the Basilica which gives you a true perspective of how large the place is (you won’t believe how high up you are already).
The second reason, is that the grand finale of this climb is a panoramic view of Rome, a city sprawling either side of the iconic St Peter’s Square. The climb to the top is not easy, you’ll need to be relatively fit, not scared of heights and definitely not scared of small spaces as some of the moments on the smaller staircases feel quite claustrophobic. Once you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most beautiful views in the world. A ticket costs €6 to take the steps, or €8 to take an elevator part of the way. Be warned, the climb to the top is not for the faint of heart.
One final place to explore on your trip to Rome is the area around the Spanish Steps. The view from the top of the Spanish Steps is pretty pleasant (although can’t be compared to the view from the top of St Peter’s) but the main appeal will be to those looking for designer boutiques. Pretty much every designer brand has a store here, so be sure to do a bit of window shopping as you walk around these small and crowded streets.
My trip highlights
By far my top highlight is the Vatican City. The view from the top of St Peter’s Basilica is astounding, I lost my breath and about 12 kilos in sweat but it was totally worth it. You really have that ‘on top of the world’ feeling and on a clear day you can see for miles. St Peter’s Square below looks amazing and the long road that runs away from the Basilica is really pleasing to the eye.
The basilica itself is a work of art and the scale of the place is quite humbling. The significance of standing in the Sistine Chapel takes your breath away and seeing Michelangelo’s paintings in the flesh are just an added bonus.
My second favourite memory of Rome, is seeing the Colosseum from the outside for the first time. I think it was something to do with pairing the expectation with reality and you’ll be pleased to know it’s exactly as impressive as you’d imagine.
Rome’s reputation precedes it. In some instances this can lead to over-inflated expectations, but it’s pretty much impossible to overestimate Rome. It’s as beautiful as everyone says it is and just wandering the streets aimlessly is as nice as walking from landmark to landmark. With so much to see here, you can guarantee you’ll learn something new each and every time you revisit the city.
I did the audio tour at the Colosseum and found it a bit underwhelming. It was a bit tricky to navigate, confusing which parts you were supposed to be looking at and the stories (although interesting) were a bit bland.
If I could have my experience over again, I would have timed my visit to go with a live tour guide – there are plenty going so even if you have to wait to get on one I think it would be totally worth it.
Also, eat at Pasta Chef Monti at least once – fresh pasta served in eco-friendly takeaway containers with craft beer, it’s a delight.