A weekend in Rome is the perfect amount of time to get a taste of what the Italian capital has to offer.
From ancient ruins to Renaissance masterpieces: get ready to experience Rome at its quintessential best – all within the span of two days.
Day 1 Highlights
A quick snapshot of your first day in Rome:
- Start your day with the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica
- Cross the Bridge of Angels
- Explore an ancient castle
- Marvel at Baroque architecture in Piazza Navona
- Enter the Pantheon
- Make a wish at the Trevi Fountain
- An evening in Trastevere
You might expect your days in Rome to be filled completely with ancient ruins and gladiators, but your first day is going to be less ruins and more Renaissance.
Italy was the center of artistic rediscovery during the Renaissance – and was home to some of the greatest minds the world has ever seen. Today, you will see irreplaceable masterpieces, iconic sculptures, and spectacular fountains as you explore Rome …and maybe a few ancient sites too.
If you’re a really early riser, lucky you. It’s the perfect time to head to the busiest sights in Rome (we’re looking at you, Trevi Fountain.) before the crowds rush in. For the rest of us mere mortals, however, a more leisurely itinerary is in order.
Your first day in Rome will be busy but hopefully manageable. Remember to always take things at your own pace – don’t be afraid to go a bit slower or miss a few stops if you need to.
A city within a city: the Vatican is the center of the Catholic Church and a state in its own right.
This will be your whole morning and could easily spill into the afternoon. If you wanted to, you could spend an entire day here. I recommend heading in as early as you can to beat the crowds and make the most of the day.
Starting early is the smart choice here, as the crowds can quickly build later in the day. You can get skip-the-line tickets for the Vatican Museums to make your entrance even smoother.
Very few museums in the world can compete with the collection on display at the Vatican Museums – perhaps the Louvre or MoMA in New York.
The Catholic Church has had many centuries as one of the world’s greatest powers to amass an art collection worth over 10 billion dollars. From Caravaggio to the Raphael Rooms: there are priceless pieces of art everywhere you look in the Vatican Museums.
Of course, there is one masterpiece that quite literally stands head and shoulders above the rest: the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are world-renowned. Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is one of the most recognizable images in existence, and seeing it in person is an unforgettable experience.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Follow up the museums with the magnificence of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s free to enter, but you should expect queues, especially in peak season.
The holiest church in Catholicism, the opulence of St. Peter’s Basilica is unmatched. It’s said to be the final resting place of Saint Peter, making it a particularly meaningful pilgrimage for Christians, but the art and architecture are enough to make it worth visiting for anyone.
Besides the building itself, the Pieta statue is the clear highlight – the iconic sculpture is the only work Michelangelo ever signed.
A quick tip: While everything in central Rome is within walking distance, you may sometimes want to rest your legs and travel via public transport. The Vatican is a bit further out than most but can easily be reached by bus or metro (Line A).
One thing to bear in mind is that you’ll need to purchase your tickets before getting on the bus. You can buy them from Tabacchi shops, which are essentially newsagents, and then validate them on the bus. Make sure you insert the ticket into the stamping machine when you get on – otherwise, you could be facing a hefty fine.
I may have said that today would feature a slightly less ancient itinerary, but when in Rome.
Walk or catch the bus to Castel Sant’Angelo from the Vatican to explore an ancient Roman fortress. Most famous as the tomb of Emperor Hadrian, the castle has seen several uses in its long history. From tomb to Papal fortress – with a secret tunnel to the Vatican allowing the Pope to escape – to prison to, finally, a museum.
Castel Sant’Angelo has had many faces, and you’ll see a rough timeline of the city’s history within these walls. As is almost to be expected in Rome, there are several beautiful frescoes and statues inside, but the view from the top is perhaps the most impressive sight of all.
If you spent longer than planned at the Vatican and haven’t got time to go inside, it’s still worth stopping for the Bridge of Angels. This is easily the most beautiful bridge in Rome – and one of the oldest – which you can cross on your way back into the center.
After you’ve explored Castel Sant’Angelo, wander over to Piazza Navona, which is less than 10 minutes away on foot. Linger for a while in this elegant square to admire the incredible Baroque architecture and closely examine the craftsmanship on show for the iconic three fountains.
Most impressive of all is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, or Fountain of the Four Rivers. This gargantuan sculpture was designed by Bernini in the 17th Century – each statue is meant to signify a major river (the Nile, Danube, the Ganges, and Rio de la Plata), representing the spread of Christianity.
Once you’ve had your fill of the Baroque, skip a few cobbled streets over to the Pantheon.
Perhaps the best-preserved ancient building in not just Rome but the entire world, the Pantheon is an astonishing feat of engineering – and one that still leaves people scratching their heads.
The huge domed ceiling, which dwarfs even the one of St. Peter’s Basilica, is the largest ever built without the aid of modern reinforced concrete. It’s an impressive fact on its own, but to think that it was built 2000 years ago – and has survived intact since then – is truly astonishing.
The scale and grandeur of this Roman temple turned church is sure to steal your attention but look closer, and you’ll see some notable figures are buried within these walls: the Pantheon is the final resting place of Raphael, one of the great painters of the Italian Renaissance.
It’s free to enter the Pantheon but keep an eye on closing times. It shuts its doors earlier outside the summer months.
Sharpen your elbows and get ready to jostle: it’s time to visit the Trevi Fountain.
As I said earlier, the best time to visit the Trevi Fountain is at the crack of dawn. Any time after that (especially if it’s peak season) is likely to leave you vying for a position with tourists. Ignore all that, though, and know that even with the crowds, it’s absolutely still worth seeing.
The Trevi Fountain is an astonishing work of art and architecture – is there a more impressive fountain in existence? Toss a coin into the fountain and make a wish, or, as a local myth decrees, throw three to return to Rome and marry your true love.
Need Another Activity? Climb Capitoline Hill
If you’ve somehow still got time left in the day and want to burn off the energy you have left, climbing Capitoline Hill is sure to steal your breath away.
You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with an excellent view over Rome and a glimpse of the ancient world you’ll be exploring tomorrow. If you have more time than you expected or skipped one of the other activities, explore the Capitoline Museums and see the Capitoline Wolf while you’re there.
An evening in Rome is best spent sampling the delicious food and drink synonymous with Italy. Bear in mind that it’s common to eat later in the evening in Italy, so don’t be surprised if many local restaurants aren’t open until at least 7 pm.
Head down to Trastevere for an evening of great food and drink and an even better atmosphere. While still central, Trastevere is frequented by Romans just as much as it is by visitors – locals and tourists alike are drawn to the cozy but electric vibe in this leafy district.
Cobbled and winding streets are filled with people dining al fresco, and there’s always a buzz in the courtyard facing Basilica di Santa Maria once the sun sets.
Sunset on the Tiber
You can easily reach Trastevere on foot from Piazza Navona or jump on the bus if you need to – electric scooters are another popular way of navigating the city.
A nice relaxed walk is a lovely way to unwind after a busy day, though, and if you time it right, you might just be able to watch the sunset over Ponte Sisto as you cross the Tiber.
Day 2 Highlights
The highlights of your second day in Rome:
- A wander through the Roman Forum
- The Colosseum: explore the world’s most famous arena
- Lunch in Monti
- Delve into an ancient palace at the Domus Aurea
- Climb the famous Spanish Steps
- Relax on the grounds of Villa Borghese
Roman Forum & Palatine Hill
Where better to start your day than in the heart of Ancient Rome? If you want to get a sense of what makes the Italian capital so special, you’ll find it here.
This was once the center of Roman society: where priestesses, emperors, and common folk would rub shoulders, and all the most important events and exchanges in Roman society would take place. Here, the Vestal Virgins would tend to the eternal flame of Rome, the Imperial Senate would convene, and returning conquerors would parade in triumphant victory.
You can wander from one impressive ancient ruin to another in the Roman Forum, from the gravesite of Julius Caesar to the Temple of Saturn – and this is all before you’ve climbed Palatine Hill, famously the birthplace of Ancient Rome.
On Palatine Hill, you will see the ruins of a series of palaces – this was once the most prestigious neighborhood in Rome – and the Houses of Augustus and Livia, home to some of the best-preserved frescoes in Rome.
From Palatine Hill, you’ll also get a good view of the stadium of chariot races, the Circus Maximus. You could always walk down and see it at ground level, but I don’t recommend it with such a tight schedule.
One of the seven wonders of the world and the most iconic sight in Rome. The Colosseum has been photographed countless times and is a familiar image to most of us, but it’s still an unforgettable moment when you first see it in person.
The Colosseum could hold 50,000 spectators in its heyday when gladiators would engage in brutal fights, wild beasts would be released for staged hunts, and even, on occasion, mock-naval fights would take place. Standing within the Colosseum walls, where all this occurred 2000 years ago, is awe-inspiring and an unmissable experience in Rome.
Visiting the Colosseum after the Roman Forum is a natural choice – it sits adjacent to it, only a few minutes away on foot, and entrance tickets are usually combined. You can also pay an additional fee to step out onto the arena floor and see the stadium from the gladiators’ perspective.
If you purchase your tickets far enough in advance, you might also be lucky enough to pick up tickets to the Hypogeum, the underground labyrinth beneath the arena floor. This maze of corridors is where the gladiators would prepare for battle, and wild beasts would be kept before entering the arena. It’s only been open to the public since 2021 and is a fascinating experience – but you have to book early to secure tickets.
A quick tip: I’m sure you’ve heard of Rome’s reputation for pick-pockets and scam artists, and while there is, unfortunately, some truth to this, it’s not enough to detract from the beauty of the city. They’re not swarming all over Rome, but you might encounter a few in the busiest tourist areas i.e. the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain.
Don’t worry too much – just be street-wise. Avoid putting any valuables in easy-to-reach places (wearing a cross-body bag is best), and don’t engage if a stranger approaches you.
Lunch in Monti
Right outside the Colosseum is the trendy neighborhood of Monti, a bohemian and chic maze of streets filled with vintage shops and small eateries.
Monti has become increasingly popular with visitors, but it’s still a firm favorite with locals, giving the neighborhood an authentic feel – it’s the perfect area to find a nice lunch spot and maybe try some of that legendary Italian pizza.
Wander back toward the Colosseum to visit the palace of Rome’s least favorite Emperor. Many people visit the Colosseum and walk right by this ancient site, completely unaware it exists, but the Golden Palace of Nero is an older and arguably even more fascinating ruin.
Within the corridors of this sprawling palace, you will see what is perhaps the first still-life painting ever created, beautiful architecture (including a hugely impressive octagonal hall), an immaculately preserved mosaic floor, and echoes of the frescoes that helped inspire the Renaissance, including one depicting Achilles.
Nero was a notorious narcissist, and what we see today is only a small fraction of the original palace, which once stretched across the valley towards the Roman Forum, where the Colosseum is now located. A VR experience in Domus Aurea helps you envision what it looked like then as it strips away the dirt that has buried and preserved the palace, allowing you to see Ancient Rome in all its glory. The light was an essential design consideration of this palace complex – VR helps us see it as intended.
You will be guided through the halls of this subterranean palace by an archaeologist who can explain the significance of everything you see. Feel free to ask any questions that occur to you – they’re more than happy to answer.
Unfortunately, the Domus Aurea is only open Friday to Sunday – the rest of the week, it’s an active archaeological site. If you’re unable to visit the Domus Aurea, whether that’s because you’re not visiting at the weekend or it’s otherwise closed, you should head to the mightily impressive Baths of Caracalla instead.
A quick tip: Remember to double-check that your tour is an English one. Tours are offered in both English and Italian, and you don’t want to get caught out by booking the wrong one.
Get the metro from Colosseo to Spagna to cut some of your walking time – the Domus Aurea is almost 30 minutes away from the Spanish Steps on foot.
Spend some time exploring before you head to the famous staircase: the area surrounding the Spanish Steps exudes elegance and sophistication – if you’re looking for designer brands and exclusive stores, this is where they’ll be.
The Spanish Steps are beautiful and a popular attraction for a reason. You don’t have to climb them if you’re unable to, but if you can, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Rome at the top.
After climbing the Spanish Steps, you’ll want to sit and relax for a while. After admiring the view of the city, you should head into the gardens of Villa Borghese.
The landscape gardens of Villa Borghese are perfect for a Sunday afternoon. You can relax and unwind in the gardens for an hour or two, or if you’re not the type to lay back and admire your surroundings, explore the world-class Borghese Gallery.
If you can’t bear the sight of another gorgeous painting at this stage of your trip, Villa Borghese is also home to a zoo, puppet theatre, and cinema: there’s sure to be something you’ll enjoy.
For your final evening in Rome, choose between an unusual trip to an even more unusual crypt and a relaxed couple of hours in the center.
For Something a Bit Different: Capuchin Crypt
If you’re a fan of the creepy and macabre, an evening visit to a tomb made of human remains is bound to tick some boxes. There are few places like the Capuchin Crypt in the world – the friars believed that the display was a poignant way of highlighting our own mortality and the short nature of life.
Unsettling at the best of times, the night tours of the Capuchin Crypt are especially spooky. There’s no better time to start exploring the Crypt of Skulls and the Crypt of Pelvises than after dark.
A Relaxed Evening in Testaccio or The center
If you want a more low-key, relaxed evening, I would recommend either heading down to Testaccio or staying in the center. Testaccio is one of the best foodie districts in Rome, so if you want to end your trip with some great food, this is where you should go.
If you want to just immerse yourself in the atmosphere of Rome for your last couple of hours, you should stay in the center. Hang around Piazza Navona or the Colosseum and simply enjoy your final evening in the Eternal City. Don’t forget to try some gelato before you leave.