Around the year 0, Rome was no longer considered a city. It was considered the whole civilized world and everyone else was a barbarian. They no longer believe this, thank goodness, but there are so many well preserved structures from that time. Each one tells an amazing story about the past, and it’s fun to discover them. There’s enough to see and do in Rome for a tourist to keep busy for at least a week, but if you’re like me and only have a limited amount of vacation days, this 4 day itinerary hits the highlights. It’s packed full and has a strenuous pace, so you might need a vacation from your vacation if you follow it entirely, or you can shave off a few sights to have a more relaxing trip.
Day 1 – San Giovanni/Scala Sancta/San Clemente/St. Peter in Chains/St. Maria Vittoria
I arrived in Rome around 8:30 am, found an ATM to pull out some Euros, and headed to the Tourist Information office in the airport to buy my Roma pass. The Roma pass costs 38.50 Euros, is good for 72 hours, and provides free admission and skip the line access for the first two sites with discounted rates for all sites after that. It was a huge money and time saver as it let me skip the lines at most of the biggest attractions like the Colosseum and also covered bus and metro transportation in Rome. I highly recommend it.
Rome is a great place to go on a pilgrimage, proven by the multitude of nuns you will see walking around the city. Religious or not, it’s easy to appreciate the role the church plays in the lives of most Italians. Before you start your journey to the churches I suggest, make sure you research the hours they are open. Many take a long lunch, closing from around noon to 3pm.
After I took the train from the airport to the heart of Rome, I checked into my cozy Airbnb flat and then hit the street to beat the jet lag. (I chose the train from the airport as opposed to a taxi for the cost savings – about 15USD as opposed to 60USD.) I started my exploration of Rome at San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran) to ogle the huge church that holds the papal chair. The Pope doesn’t actually become the Pope until he sits in the chair at San Giovanni. My next stop was to cross the street and climb the Scala Sancta (Holy Stairs) on my knees. These steps were walked up by Jesus as he was on his way to trial in Jerusalem and brought to Rome around 300AD by St. Helena. The ascent is slow because it is customary to pause on each step to say a prayer, but it is an awe-inspiring experience. Don’t forget to pay the nuns €3.50 in the gift shop at the top of the stairs for your ascent up the stairs. You don’t want to skip out and inflict the wrath of God!
A fifteen minute walk away is San Clemente (St. Clement), which is a great example layering with a 12th century church built on top of a 4th century church that was built on top of a pagan temple. Entry to the church is free, but it costs €5.00 to go down into the pagan temple. Another fifteen minute walk away is San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains). The famous relic here is…you guessed it, Saint Peter’s chains from when he was held prisoner in Jerusalem. This cathedral also houses Michelangelo’s statue of Moses that is part of the tomb for Pope Julius II. The last stop of my pilgrimage was Santa Maria Vittoria (Our Lady of Victory), which houses Bernini’s brilliant sculpture of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Entry is free for the churches, but you might want to bring €1.00 coins to light up the tombs and sculptures.
By this time it was close to 5pm, which is when a wonderful daily experience happens all around Italy. From about 5pm-7pm locals dress to be seen and go out in the streets to socialize before dinner. It’s a great time to grab your honey, order a gelato and go for a leisurely stroll. I took the metro line A to the Flaminio stop to start my stroll from Piazza del Popolo and end at the Spanish Steps. By this time my energy tank was running low, so I grabbed a quick dinner and stumbled my way back to my flat to collapse.
Day 2 – Colosseum/Palatine Hill/Roman Forum/Capitoline Museums/Pantheon
Since I went to bed early the previous day, I was prepared to wake up bright and early so that I could beat the crowds to the Colosseum. I validated my Roma pass on the metro and took Line B to the Colosseo stop. Unfortunately, seemingly every other tourist in Rome had the same idea, but luckily I bought the Roma Pass, which allowed me to skip the forever-long line and get in pretty quickly. If you don’t get the Roma pass and don’t want to wait in the hours-long line at the Colosseum, you can walk just a couple of minutes to Palatine Hill to get your ticket, then walk back to the Colosseum and skip the line. This was the first place I used my Roma pass, so the €12.00 entry was free for me.
As you might have discovered by reading my Resource List, I love Rick Steves, and for good reason. I read his Italy book in preparation for my trip, and I downloaded his app on my phone for free. His app has tons of audio tours that you can download for free to your phone and listen to at any time. As soon as I got through the line at the Colosseum, I queued up Rick’s Colosseum audio tour and listened blissfully for the next hour as he took me through the long history of the Colosseum and helped me better appreciate the magnificent structure.
Next, I walked a short distance to Palatine Hill, which counts as a single entry along with the Colosseum and the Forum, so it was also included with my Roma Pass. This was a quiet retreat after fighting the Colosseum crowds, and it’s also historically important. It is one of the oldest parts of the city and excavations confirm that humans lived there more than 12,000 years ago. It’s also where Romulus and Remus founded Rome, and where many Roman emperors lived. As an extra bonus, it has great views over The Forum, which is where I headed next.
As I headed down the hill to the Forum I queued up Rick Steves’ Roman Forum audio tour, and for the next hour and a half I made my way around the ruins that used to be the center of Roman public life. Just up the hill from the Forum are the Capitoline Museums. This museum is considered to be the first museum in the world and holds a world-class collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian sculptures and art. It was also covered by the Roma Pass as my second entry, but otherwise costs €15.00. For €5.00, they have a very good audio guide if you want to learn more about the artifacts.
From here I walked down the unique steps designed by Michelangelo and got a great view of the Victor Emmanuel Monument, which was built for the first king of Italy after unification. It has an elevator that you can take to the top for €7.00, but I chose not to do this. I then walked to Trajan’s column in Trajan’s Forum. Trajan’s Forum is kind of a continuation of the Roman Forum, where Romans came to shop and some of them lived. I ended my Roman journey at the Pantheon, which was built in 120 AD and is one of the best preserved Roman structures because it has served as a church ever since it was completed. Entry is free, and I used another Rick Steves audio guide to learn more about the structure.
I ate an early dinner (7pm is early for Italians) at Trattoria del Pallaro. This was a wonderfully authentic experience because it feels like you’re at your grandma’s house. You can pay a set price and get all of the wine, appetizers, pasta, meat and dessert you can stuff in your belly. The catch is that there’s no menu. They serve you a meal based off what was fresh in the market that day. After dinner I walked from Campo di Fiore, which holds a wonderful flower market during the day, to Piazza Navona to see the gorgeous fountains. I hadn’t seen the famous Trevi Fountain yet, so I walked over to toss in my coin and then finished my evening for the second day in a row with a gelato on the romantic Spanish Steps. The scene was so dream-like I could have easily made a habit of ending all of my days like that.
Day 3 – St. Peter’s Basilica/Vatican Museum
Again, I woke up bright and early to get to the Vatican before all of the other tourists. I took metro Line A to the Ottaviano stop and then walked 10 minutes to the Vatican to find out that I was wrong again. I started to wonder if people just started sleeping at the major attractions in Rome just to get a good spot in line! I made reservations for the Vatican Museum for noon, so I arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica around 7:30am. Long as the line was, it went quickly, but I made use of my wait and captured all of the photos I wanted of the gorgeous façade. Dress modestly to get in (no shorts, knees, or shoulders showing), and once inside, let your mouth hang open as you wander around the largest church in the world. I used another Rick Steves audio tour, and then paid €5.00 to ascend to the dome and get great views of Piazza San Pietro and all of Rome. I didn’t feel rushed at St. Peter’s, but I made it around the Vatican walls to the Vatican Museum just in time for my 12pm reservation. With my €16.00 online reservation I was quickly ushered in front of the line that was at least 3 hours long. Although the museum was more crowded than any other museum I’ve ever been to, I resisted the urge to follow the herd of people that were flowing straight to the Sistine Chapel. Stopping to enjoy the art collected by all of the Popes was a great decision, and I really enjoyed the pieces on display before I made it to the adored Sistine Chapel. When I finally made it into the Chapel and looked around, I understood why Pope Paul III fell to his knees before Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. It’s so beautiful you’ll want to take a picture, but photos aren’t allowed, so before you commit a sin in the Pope’s chapel, just remember the gift shop has plenty of prints for purchase.
After I left Vatican City, I made my way by Castel Sant’Angelo to walk over the angel-lined Ponte Sant’Angelo (Hadrian’s Bridge) and continued along the river to Trastavere, which is a historically Jewish neighborhood. It still holds significant character with its narrow, cobblestone streets and laundry hanging from clotheslines. I ended my night with an enjoyable dinner and a glass of wine on a quiet street.
Day 4 – Borghese Gallery/St. Paul’s Outside the Walls
I spent my last day in Rome at a leisurely pace. I walked through the Villa Borghese Gardens to the Borghese Gallery, where I had reserved a timed entry in advance for €11.00. (You must have a reservation to enter.) The museum features artwork collected by the extremely wealthy Cardinal Borghese, and the €5.00 audio guide made my visit to this gallery more enjoyable. After the museum I wandered through the serene gardens to find a water fountain and the perfect spot for my picnic lunch. I’ve got to say that one of my favorite things about Rome was the water fountains. Clean, refreshing water flows into the city and supplies water for over 2,500 fountains scattered all over Rome.
After lunch, I headed off to Termini train station to take metro Line B to the San Paulo Basilica stop and walked a few minutes to the round tower of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls. This Papal Basilica was built where St. Paul was buried. It’s off the beaten tourist track, so I nearly had it to myself. My energy was fading, so I went to a bar and ordered a café macchiato to perk me up. I slowly made my way back to the heart of Rome to have an early dinner and get ready for my journey to Florence the next day.
Italy is America’s favorite country, and for good reason. It’s full of history, romance, and fun Italians! In Rome you really won’t experience a language barrier because so many people speak English. Just remember to learn a few words of Italian to be respectful and don’t hesitate to communicate with the locals. If you have more time to spend in Italy, make sure to check out my other “play by play” posts 3 Days in Florence and 10 Day Italy Itinerary. Grazie!
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