As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day…but with some discipline and determination, you can see the best bits in less than 24 hours.
Yes, Rome is a sizeable city and yes, there is a lot to explore, but, with the following itinerary, you’ll come away feeling like your appetite for cultural experiences has been fully satiated. Here’s how to spend a day in Rome:
ST PETER’S BASILICA
St Peter’s Basilica is one of Rome’s top visitor draws. Begin by walking through the square, from which you will get great views of the basilica itself, as well as the impressively imposing colonnades. You can enter the basilica free of charge, but you may need to queue to have your bags scanned. Make sure you look up, as some of the most intricate embellishment can be found in the ceiling. Afterwards, there are two great ways to explore the Vatican further. For a small fee, you can climb to the top of the dome. The spiral staircase gets a little claustrophobic at times, and there are over 500 steps, but the views of the city more than make up for it. Alternatively, you could check out the Vatican Museums, which include the Sistine Chapel.
Leave St Peter’s from the front and head directly past the obelisk in the centre of the square and along Via Della Conciliation to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Pause now and then to look back at the basilica as your perspective changes. The castle was originally commissioned by a Roman emperor as residence for him and his family. It has since been used by popes as a fortress, and is now a museum. While the relics and works of art housed inside are undoubtedly worth a look, if you’ve got limited time, you should head straight to the pedestrianised Ponte Sant’Angelo. Its marble arches and large angel sculptures perfectly frame the castle behind and provide a great photo opportunity.
THE ‘BAD PALACE’
Head east along the River Tiber to the next bridge – the Ponte Umberto I. On the other side of the bridge, you will see the Palace of Justice, popularly referred to in Italian as the ‘Bad Palace’. It is unclear whether this is due to its overly grand nature being considered an eyesore, or because of suspicions of corruption following its construction.
The Piazza Navona is one of the city’s popular meeting spots. It occupies the same site as the interior arena of an ancient stadium, where athletic contests were once held. Notable structures include the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, and the Fountain of the Four Rivers with its central obelisk.
The Pantheon is another of Rome’s top attractions. You could spend hours weaving through the streets of central Rome checking out churches, museums, theatres, piazzas, fountains and sculptures, but it would be a crime to miss this extraordinary feat of architecture, which is directly east of the Piazza Navona and remains one of ancient Rome’s best preserved structures. The largest unsupported dome in the world sits 43.3 metres above the floor, which is precisely equal to its diameter, and there is a 9-metre wide oculus at its centre through which natural light illuminates the building. The 16 Corinthian-style columns that support the portico weigh 60 tonnes each and were transported all the way from Egypt. Entrance is free.
MARCUS AURELIUS COLUMN
From the Pantheon, head northeast until you reach the Piazza Colonna. Here you will find the intricately detailed column of Marcus Aurelius. It was built in honour of the roman emperor of the same name and features carved figures in a spiral pattern. It stands at almost 30 metres high. Inside, there is a spiral staircase, illuminated by small slits in the relief and leading to a small platform. It’s no longer possible to climb the staircase, but there’d be little point considering the detail is on the outside.
Cross the Via del Corso – a large and busy shopping street – and follow signs to the Fontana de Trevi. This large sculpted fountain is a world-famous landmark that has appeared in many films. It is said that if you use your right hand to toss a coin over your left shoulder into the fountain you’re destined to return to Rome one day. Whether or not this is true, the estimated €3000 a day that’s collected is used to help feed Rome’s needy, so your money goes to a good cause. At the time of writing, the fountain was being restored and was largely obstructed by scaffolding, but it’s still worth a look as you pass by.
A short walk north of the Trevi fountain will lead you to the Spanish Steps – a bustling part of the city where artists, poets and musicians have found inspiration for generations. These include the English poet John Keats who lived and died in a house to the right. There is now a museum in its place. The steps themselves are named after the Spanish square at their base, which in turn is named after the Spanish Embassy. This is the perfect place to sit and eat a snack from a nearby delicatessen.
PIAZZA DEL POPOLO
Although, by Rome standards, the Piazza del Popolo is not the most impressive open space, if you can fit into your itinerary a detour northwest of the Spanish Steps, you’ll get to see where people gather to celebrate new year’s eve, as well as the place where public executions were performed up until 1826. From here, you can climb some steps and stroll back towards the Barberini Metro Station through parkland while admiring views of the city.
From Piazza Barberini, stroll for a few minutes up Via Vittorio Veneto until you reach the entrance to the Capuchin Crypt. After a small exhibition on the origin and members of the Capuchin order of monks, you’ll enter a series of small chapels beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. Here, the bones of almost 4000 dead Capuchin monks are arranged in decorative designs. Many are nailed to the walls or hang from the ceiling like chandeliers. Whether you agree with Frommer’s, who described the crypt as ‘one of the most horrifying images in all of Christendom’, or the Marquis de Sade, who noted that his journey there was ‘worth the effort’, it’s rare for visitors not to appreciate the opportunity to see something so macabrely beautiful.
ALTAR OF THE FATHERLAND
Also known as the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, this huge sculpture was built between 1911 and 1925 in honour of the first king of a unified Italy. Of note is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in which the remains of an unidentified soldier from World War I were laid to rest following a state funeral. Construction of the monument was met with controversy since part of the Capitoline Hill was destroyed to accommodate it. Because of its size, glaringly white facade and general conspicuous nature, it has garnered the nicknames ‘typewriter’, ‘wedding cake’ and ‘national urinal’, but it looks quite striking in the setting sun. To reach it from the crypt, walk west along Via del Tritone then follow Via del Corso to its southernmost point.
If you’re running out of steam or daylight, the Colosseum should be your next stop, but if you can bear another longish stroll, there’s a fantastic little spot that’s well worth visiting a couple of kilometres south of the monument – and there are three reasons to go. First, you can visit a beautiful yet infrequently visited church called Santa Sabina, which is situated next to a peaceful orchard. Once you’re done exploring that, there’s a fantastic viewpoint that enables you to see each of the landmarks you’ve visited so far. But the piece de resistance is Michelangelo’s keyhole – so-called because, when you peer through, you’re rewarded with a view of Michelangelo’s dome and St Peter’s Basilica, far off in the distance and perfectly framed by trees. To find the keyhole, follow Via di Santa Sabina past the church until you reach the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta.
Along with St Peter’s Basilica, it’s pretty much a given that visitors to Rome will visit the Colosseum. It’s the largest amphitheatre ever built and is often listed, along with the Pantheon, as one of history’s most impressive feats of construction. Although earthquakes and stone robbers have partially destroyed this iconic landmark, enough remains to get a feel for what it might have been like when the structure was used to host gladiator contests, animal hunts and executions. To make the most of the experience, join one of the Colosseum and ancient Rome guided tours, which are available in various languages. If you’re making your way to the Colosseum from Aventine Hill, make sure you check out the Circo Massimo – an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium – as you pass by.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
This route is ambitious, but achievable. Make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes, because the best way to see the city is on foot. The Metro should only be a last resort if you’re running out of time or energy.
If you do get the Metro, be extra vigilant of your belongings. Muggings are commonplace. Use a secure bag, hold it where you can see it, with your hands over the fastening, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted.