2 Days In Rome: The Essential Itinerary For First Time Visitors

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Rome is called “the Eternal City” for very good reason. It’s impact on the world has been, well, pretty eternal. The ancient city thrived as the capital of the Roman Empire, then it thrived as the centre of the Catholic faith and a polestar of the Renaissance period, and now it thrives as the capital city of modern Italy.

Remnants of ancient Rome, like the world-famous Colosseum and architectural marvel, the Pantheon, still stand tall and beg to be explored, as does the rest of the modern city filled with designer fashion stores, pizzerias, pastarias and gelatarias galore.

Visiting Rome in any short timeframe is destined to be a challenge. I recently had only 2 days in Rome to explore the essential big-ticket attractions like the Colosseum, Vatican City, and Trevi Fountain.

Here’s how to do Rome like a pro.

Day 1

9am – The Colosseum

I pre-booked our Colosseum tickets online through Italy Travels, making sure to book an early morning timeslot as the Colosseum fills up pretty fast. The tickets include either an audio guide or guided tour (depending on the timeslot you choose) as well as access to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.

Need to know: The Colosseum only allows 3000 visitors at a time, and that number was reached by 10am on the day we toured. Only once people started exiting would new entrants be allowed.

Tip: If you can't travel to Italy for one reason or another, check out this virtual tour of Italy from Headout.com.

We caught the metro from our Airbnb apartment to Colosseo metro station. *Clank* That was the sound of our jaws hitting the floor after stepping out onto the street. Wow! Holy batballs. Towering in front of us was the 48-metre-high ancient amphitheatre that postcards simply don’t do justice. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that tingling sense of awe. It was like I’d just stepped into a scene from The Gladiator, only with a few hundred extra selfie-snapping tourists.

We arrived at 8:30am for our 9:30am guided tour, and the queue for the Colosseum was already snaking around the structure. If you’ve got a few minutes up your sleeve, grab one of the best photos you’ll take all day from the top of the brick steps at the north end. Here’s the exact spot.

The sweet spot for the best photo of the Colosseum… and you can’t see the tourists!

Thanks to fast-track tickets, we were able to join the shortest queue and made it through security in about 10 minutes. A minor miracle.

We met our tour group (of approximately 20) underneath the sensibly-named “group tour meeting point” sign next to the ground floor bookshop at 9:15am. Our guide, Miranda, handed out audio devices and headphones so she could speak into a microphone instead of shouting over the crowd. The 60-minute tour involved walking around the upper level of Colosseum while Miranda shared stories on the theatre’s incredible architecture and gory history. This really made the place come alive.

Long queues by 10:30am

After the tour, Miranda collected the audio devices and left us to stroll around and take photos at our leisure.

11am – The Roman Forum

Tickets to the Colosseum and Roman Forum are valid for 2 days, so you don’t have to visit both sites on the same day. I recommend hitting the Roman Forum early the following morning if you can to avoid the crowds.

View of Arch of Constantine from inside the Colosseum

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a spare morning so after wandering past the Arch of Constantine, we headed west along the Sacred Road and waited 20 minute before entering the Roman Forum. I later learned there’s another smaller entrance a few minutes south with shorter queues.

The Roman Forum contains a massive collection of well-preserved ruins of ancient public buildings including several temples, monuments, statues, a cemetery, records buildings, bath houses, and a palace. It was once the administrative core of the Roman Empire and a hub of activity from public speeches and political elections to criminal trials. Now it’s a harsh reminder that nothing lasts forever. Change is part of life. Exploring the Roman Forum is the most authentic way to feel the pulse of ancient Rome.

Rome tip: Rick Steves provides an excellent free audio guide (MP3) that lasts about 40 minutes with an accompanying PDF map.

Arch of Titus

Several popular landmarks including the Arch of Titus and Palatine Hill are located inside the Roman Forum complex.

2pm – Lunch

By the time we’d thoroughly explored the Roman Forum, we were ready for lunch, but most restaurants around the Colosseum were either full or closed until dinner. Luckily, we stumbled across Il Pentagrappolo, a cosy, traditional Italian restaurant that surprisingly doesn’t serve pasta. Yes, you read that right.

We followed our waiter’s recommendation and ordered the lunch special - black rice, deli meats, and steamed vegetables followed by fruit salad. I wasn’t going to get fat on that.

5pm – The Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and Spanish Steps on a Welcome to Rome Tour

After lunch, we strolled at a leisurely pace in the direction of our next tour meeting point, Piazza Navona, stopping along the way at sites like the Trajan Forum, Alter of the Fatherland and a souvenir stall or two.

Trajan Forum

By 4:45pm, we were in Piazza Navona and ready for our Welcome to Rome City Stroll & Gelato Tasting Tour. This tour is perfect for your first day in Rome as it delves into a number of centrally-located must-see landmarks, and reveals essential tips like how to pick a good restaurant and avoid getting scammed by taxi drivers.

Our guide, Smaragda spilled the beans on buildings and fountains within Piazza Navona before moving on to visit the Pantheon, the first Roman pagan temple to be turned into a Catholic church. The Pantheon’s unmistakable dome roof is crested with a small circular opening that lets in natural sunlight, or rain, depending on the season. Even though it’s almost 2,000 years old, the Pantheon’s dome is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. It’s said to have inspired Michelangelo in his design for St Peter’s Basilica dome in the Vatican. Speaking of Renaissance artists, the Pantheon is home to the tomb of Raphael as well as the first two kings of modern Italy.

Next, we sampled gelato at Don Nino, arguably the best gelataria in Rome. Smaragda warned us against brightly coloured gelato piled high into containers. Gelato kept in covered steel tins, like Don Nino’s, is kept fresh and often made from only natural ingredients, although our friendly server insisted their secret ingredient is love. Awwww.

The last stops on our tour were the very crowded Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. At the Trevi Fountain, I wiggled my way through the crowd, found an empty spot on the ledge, and threw a coin over my left shoulder (only God would know what happens if you throw it over your right!). According to legend, if you throw one coin into the fountain this way, it means you’ll come back to Rome. Sigh… how will I ever manage?

If like me, you manage to flick the coin into your eye, then legend says you need more practice flicking coins.

Ready to flick the coin, 3, 2, 1…
Trevi Fountain
Spanish Steps – more popular than ever

7.30pm – Dinner

One tip Smaragda divulged on finding the best restaurants in Rome was to venture off the main roads and down the backstreets. We tested her theory after the tour and stumbled across Doris, a traditional Italian restaurant where we enjoyed fresh, homemade pasta. Duh-lish!

And since you’re in Rome, it’s only proper to eat more gelato after dinner. An old saying (that I just made up) says “there’s no such thing as too much gelato”. And my other saying is… “calories don’t count in Italy”.

Restaurants in Rome are often full around dinner time. It’s best to decide where you want to go beforehand and call to book a table or book online (look for the “find a table” button in Google Maps).

Day 2

7:30am – The Vatican Museum and breakfast in the Vatican Gardens  

We met our VIP Pristine Sistine Vatican Tour with Museum Breakfast group just outside the Vatican walls bright and bubbly at 7:30am. I’m lying. We weren’t bubbly. However, for anyone thinking they’d rather sleep in, trust me, the early wake up is completely worth it.

We were one of the first groups to enter the Vatican Museums and hurried through arched hallways lined with exquisite paintings and sculptures to reach the Sistine Chapel before the crowds. Inside the chapel, we stared in awe at Michelangelo’s famous creation paintings that seemed to leap out from the ceiling. Any photos you may have seen can’t possibly convey the tranche de vie captured by the legendary artist in his depictions of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and the saints. Our guide had to drag us away from chapel to reach the Pinecone Courtyard in time for our buffet breakfast.

No photos or talking are allowed inside the Sistine Chapel so Smaragda saved her stories until our plates were loaded with as many eggs, sausages, pancakes, and pastries as they could hold. If Smaragda’s stories are anything to go by, Michelangelo had one hell of a wicked sense of humour. Several of the chapel’s paintings featured faces of church officials of the time. His own face is painted on a flayed skin while a cardinal who vexed him was the face of Minos in a scene depicting the underworld. This place is easter egg galore. But it takes a sharp-eyed tour guide to point these out.

Found the famous spiral staircase… it’s in the gift shop!

After breakfast, we made our way through the Vatican Museums, marvelling at captivating exhibits like ancient Greek and Roman statues, religious paintings by Renaissance artists, intricate tapestries, and religious artefacts. It’s safe to say this is the largest concentration of culturally significant art in the world – stretching over 7kms in total length - but I couldn’t have appreciated the magnitude and nuanced context without Smaragda’s insightful commentary.

You could easily spend two whole days in this complex and still not see everything.

Our last stop was St Peter’s Basilica, where our guide shared sage-like insight on more amazing art pieces before wrapping up the tour and leaving us to marvel at the cavernous nave and wander around St Peter’s Square.

I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy this tour as much as I did. I dare say it ranks amongst my top 5 in over 7 years as a professional travel blogger. It really is that good.

I suggest watching The Borgias before visiting the Vatican. You’ll have a whole new understanding of the antics carried on inside these magnificently beautiful buildings during the Renaissance, and you’ll probably recognise a few rooms, like the Borgia apartment.

12pm – Lunch

To recover from our awe-overload, we crossed Ponte Sant’Angelo and stuffed our previously gaping mouths with more homemade pasta at Osteria Le Strenghe, a traditional Italian restaurant.

1pm – Castel Sant’Angelo

After lunch, we walked back over Ponte Sant’Angelo to explore Castel Sant’Angelo, a museum with eerie origins. It was first constructed as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian and then turned into a medieval castle and used as the papal fortress, prison, and torture chamber. Despite its gruesome history, it’s incredibly fascinating to walk through the castle’s chambers and up to the rooftop, which has one of the best panoramic views across Rome. Tickets can be bought online with Viator including a smartphone audioguide, or cost €14 at the door.

Angel on Ponte Sant’Angelo
View of Rome from rooftop
Bronze statue of Archangel Michael

Sipping tip: Before you reach the rooftop, stop for an aperitif at the alfresco restaurant and admire serene views over the Vatican.

3:30pm – Guided tour of Villa Medici

The best way to get to Villa Medici is by taxi. I suggest downloading the mytaxi app (iOS, Android), the easiest way to book and pay for taxis in Rome. Otherwise, it’s a 26-minute walk.

Villa Medici was one of the Medici family’s earlier homes in Rome, bought by Cardinal Ferdinando Medici in 1576. Like all Medici properties, the villa features exquisite examples of Renaissance paintings and sculptures. Most statues in the gardens these days are copies as the originals are kept in the Bargello Museum in Florence. The villa paints a vivid picture of how the upper crust lavishly lived.

View of Vatican from garden
More spiral staircases!

Villa Medici was sold to the French State in 1803 and has been an art academy ever since. To respect the student’s privacy and schedules, the villa can only be visited as part of a guided tour several times per day. Tickets cost €12 and can be bought online or at the door. Check latest schedules here.

Italy tip: If you’re not familiar with the Medici family, watch this series – Medici, Masters of Florence – it’s one of my favourite historical dramas. Oh, GoT fans: the main actor is Rob Stark.

5pm – Return to your hotel/apartment OR try a food tour

Take a taxi back to your hotel or Airbnb apartment and spend a couple of hours unwinding before heading out for dinner in Trastevere. Don’t forget to book a table at your desired restaurant during the day. Oh, and save a little room for gelato afterwards. You know my policy.

Otherwise, if you’ve got a lot of juice left, skip dinner and just do a 3-hour food tour around Trastevere instead. It’s the “food heart” of Rome, so you won’t be hungry by the end of it.

Italy tip: If you've got a larger travel group, as an alternative to trains, you can get around italy via private minivan.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure you weren’t surprised that Rome has an endless supply of fascinating history, jaw-droppingly-beautiful artwork and drool-inducing cuisine.

Of course, 2 days isn’t long enough to truly do Rome justice. But that’s what the Trevi Fountain is for, just remember to only throw one coin, so you’ll come back to Rome… 2 coins might just result in snogging a random Italian passer-by. Now that would be awkward. Oh wait, 3 coins would be even worse. And don’t ask what 4 coins does.

Can’t get enough of Italy? Neither could we. Coming up next… Florence, Venice and Milan.

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