First thing first, you might ask me, how can one see Rome in two days? How is it possible to see the city that has so much history, culture, art, fashion, shopping, dining, wining…in just a few days? And you are right.
Two days is not enough, but this is why I have perfect insider tips for you on how you can still do it all and not feel like you’ve left out some of the major sights.
This guide is not for everyone, because it does require very physical involvement with the city, which means – you’ll be walking a lot, a lot, a lot. That’s said, there’s never enough time for Rome.
Even if you’ve visited the city many times before, there’d be still something you haven’t seen, but those would be little things that one can omit the first time around. Keep in mind, Rome – just like Paris and St. Petersburg, for example – is a place that has it all, multiplied by a thousand. But if you only have two-three days for this fascinating city, this article would be of a great help to you.
Since I’ve already been in Rome before, where I spent five days back in 2005, sleeping less and walking a lot, I approached the city this time with the same attitude as the first time I’ve visited it – little sleep, lots of walking, and lots of pre-planning, which includes: going through a guidebook (of your choice), categorizing every place in the city as a priority list: the absolutely must-see places and, of places to see IF we’d have time.
This would definitely simplify any of your short trips. Here’s how to approach it the easiest way.
Figure out what interests you the most and make a list. Is it the history of Rome that interests you the most? Is it the religion? Is it the art? Is it the landscape – parks, open spaces, ancient ruins? Is it the shopping and fashion? Then, under each of the category, write down the places that fall under each of these categories.
Say, you are fascinated with the religion, than your list would include some of the top cathedrals and chapels with Vatican, Basilica and St. Peter’s being on top of the list, and then – some of the most fascinating churches and cathedrals in the city, like San Clemente, San Giovanni in Laterano, and Santa Maria Maggiore. If it’s fashion, then – Via del Corso and Via del Boschetto streets will be on top of your list as ones of the most popular shopping streets/areas of the city with pretty much all Italian brands in presence (Tip: you might be surprised to find great deal on the "Made in Italy" goodies on the small side streets of the main streets. More on shopping in Rome here). And so on, you get the point.
In our case, I ended up to be the guide to my partner, who did visit Rome before, but he was too young to remember.
Roman sightseeing was placed in my hands, completely, and having done the Roman ‘marathon’ before, I knew very well how to approach it. I also asked him questions on his particular interests for the city, which, was pretty much him saying: “I want to see everything possible in those two days”. Thus, the first thing you should do if you are in town for just a few days is to find a hotel in the center.
Yes, it won’t be cheap as in the outskirts, but if you only have a two days, you want to be as close to the main attractions as possible, so that when you are returning from your 12-hour walk around the city, you don’t have to take subway and/or wait for a bus, which you need to know the system of very well if you don’t want to end up in a strange district in a strange city. So, your most expensive thing in the city during this short stay would be – your hotel, the rates of which vary from $150 to $350 a night for a three-four star hotel, but it’s totally worth it if you think about it. By planning a bit ahead, you can find a good deal, especially, if you don’t travel during the high season. I highly suggest our hotel.
Be Prepared to Walk
I said it before.
Get yourself a map of the city; any hotel, tourist office and information center in Rome will have it. My suggestion: even though you’ll be spending more time in the most touristy areas of the city, have lunch and/or dinner outside the ‘touristy area’ – you can manage that.
Rome is an interesting city: it might look overwhelmingly big to you, but it’s not. All the main attractions are within the ‘circle’. There are two ‘circles’ – as I call them.
The “inner” circle that has the biggest concentration of the sights, like Spanish Steps (Piazza di Spagna), Forum, Palazzo Colonna, Pantheon, Coliseum, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, Piazza Campo de Fiori, Piazza Venezia, and Campidoglio and then, there’s an “outer” circle – or the area over the river and pass the Colosseum. The “outer circle” will have S. Maria Maggiori Catherdral and plaza, Castel S. Angelo, Plazza del Popolo and, most important of them all – Vatican, which is a vast area of the holy land, next to Castel S. Angelo, and consists of St. Peter’s Cathedral, Basilica, Piazza San Pietro and Vatican museums and gardens.
Start off with the “inner” circle and do a whole rundown of everything within that “circle” and if you’d like any area in particular to walk around longer than the others, take a break there – have a glass of wine, cappuccino and/or Aperol Spritz to absorb the surrounding atmosphere and ‘suck in’ the incredible history and story behind it. I have my own favorites, where I just have to have a little break and be quite and isolate myself from all the tourist noise. One of such places is Piazza Campo de Fiori.
On a city map, it’s a tiny piazza that is not even marked as a tourist attraction, so unless you do a thorough research of the city beforehand and/or come across it by accident, you wouldn’t even know how fascinating this tiny place is!
I find it mystique and ‘dark’. It’s a square, surrounded by residential buildings with very typical Italian window shields with a cute restaurant on the first floor of each of the buildings, but the most intriguing part of it is a monument in the center of the square. It’s not a fountain, like in many other central piazzas and typical, it’s a statute of the philosopher Giordano Bruno at the centre of the square.
The story goes that executions used to be held publicly in Campo de' Fiori. Here, on 17 February 1600, the Bruno was burnt alive for heresy, and all of his works were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Holy Office. In 1887 this monument was dedicated to him on the exact spot of his death: he stands defiantly facing the Vatican, reinterpreted in the first days of a reunited Italy as a martyr to freedom of thought. The inscription on the base recites: A BRUNO - IL SECOLO DA LUI DIVINATO - QUI DOVE IL ROGO ARSE (To Bruno - the century predicted by him - here where the fire burned). The body of theologian and scientist Marco Antonio de Dominis was also burned in this square, in 1624. You should visit this square at night, because this statue looks even more intriguing. I visit it every time I come to Rome. I can just sit at a nearby restaurant/cafe and look at it. You will find your own place of such personal fascination to come back to again and again.
Expect to see a lot of tourists, less locals
If you are a fist timer in Rome, you might have an idea that you will be seeing lots of Romans, see how they dress, what they eat, how they interact among each other. Well, you will not see that scene, unless you wonder ‘outside’ the tourist areas. That is why, I suggest again and again to take at least some time to wonder off to the residential and local neighborhoods and spent your dinner at a place with the locals.
Romans, for example, usually try to avoid the center, they only work and lunch there, but for after-work and dinner time, they cross the river to the areas like Trastevere, which is boasting with the local trattoria type restaurants, or – the home-style restaurants. These are the places you’d want if you’re interested in the most authentic places and food with a sight of the locals. I always enjoy people-watching when I travel. This time we happened to see how teenagers interact, how regular restaurant patrons interact with the restaurant staff and owner, and how they spend their paste time.
However, as my partner pointed out to me, if you only have a few days in Rome, of course, you’d want to spend more time at the sighting sites and eat and drink there with a sight of a famous Roman attraction.
So, do so. Again, you can do it all.
As long as you are willing to spend an active stay in Rome, you can do it all: dine in Trastevere, see Vatican in 5 hours and visit all the main attractions by foot and some. We were willing to do so. We were dead tired every night, but the thought of what we’ve seen, eaten, drank and touched was more powerful and fulfilling than an 8-hour sleep.
You can also break your Rome tour by a large sight and the surrounding ‘sub-sights’ to better coordinate. Again, get a map and map it all out. Find a major site, first, and then see what’s around it and then find your hotel on the map and see how you can optimize your walk towards that sight, because there might be many sights around your hotel and on the way, which you can stop by and see before your major site destination.
For example, say Basilica di San Pietro (St. Peter’s Basilica), which consists of Piazza San Pietro and Bernini’s colonnade, Vatican museums and parks and Sistine Chapel – is your choice of a major sight. So, what’s around it?
There’s Castel St. Angelo next to it.
Tip: all women should wear knee-length skirts and cover their shoulders to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, otherwise, you’d be very disappointed to be turned away at the doorsteps of the basilica after spending anything from 30 min. to 1.5 hours in line to get in. No exceptions. Here’s my suggestions for two days in Rome:
Your First Day in Rome
Dedicate your first day to the center of Rome, no museums and/or any ‘inside the building’ visits, which means – visit all the plazas, such as Piazza di Spagna, Pantheon (located on a small plaza next to a very cute Pinocchio shop), Trevi Fountain (on a small plaza), Piazza Navona, Piazza Campo de Fiori, Piazza Venezia, Campidoglio, S. Maria Maggiori Catherdral (on a small plaza), and if you have time - visit Plazza del Popolo, Piazza Barberini and Piaza della Rebubblica, which are further from the center. These plazas are known for beautiful ‘within the plaza’ architecture: residential housing, monuments, built-in Religious icons and wall paintings, and fountains, with many cafes and restaurants on the plaza.
As you visit these piazzas (plazas), you will also come across many shops as Via del Corso – the shopping street, runs through the center of the city. You would not have to search for gelato and coffee shops, because they are everywhere, but if you want to find a high quality less touristy and more authentic place to eat, try Le Grotte restaurant near the Spanish Steps. Highly recommended by a local, we decided to try it on the very last evening of our stay, as it was close to our hotel and served dinner as late as 11PM. The food and house wine were absolutely delicious. More on Roman cuisine must-haves and where to have your best ever Roman meal in the article to follow.
Here’s a tip: you don’t have to go inside the Colosseum, it’s even more exciting and grandeous to see it from the outside – in as you circle around it. Hence, unless you’ve never ever seen an ancient theatre-like arena, I’d suggest to skip going inside, which, by the way, is not cheap either. Instead, if you only have time for one place – either Colloseum or Forum - go inside the Foro Romano (Forum), which is right next to Colosseum, one of the city’s most important archaeological sites, with many famous monuments spanning more than 900 years – the political, commercial, economic and religious focal point of Republican Rome.
Remember, they close their ticket booths at 6:30PM. But no worries, if you’ve missed it, you can still see all of the Forum – literally, all of it, from aside by walking around the rails, starting off at the Colosseo following Via dei Fori Imperiali towards Piazza Venezia.
We were also late to go inside the Forum (but which I thoroughly visited in 2005), however, knowing what to expect from the site and how to see it from the outside, I led my partner along the site, which offers very well exposed sightseeing points and one does not have to be inside the Forum to see what it’s all about. It’s the r-u-i-n-s, and even though they date back to BC, there’s nothing left of the original constructions, only rocks and stones and demolished arcs and podiums, which you can see very well from the outside.
That’s said, by doing this ‘roundish’ walk around the Forum, you come face to face with Piazza Venezia, which at night is even more grandeous than during the day. When you walk away from it towards the center, taking the Via del Corso, you will pass the human traffic coordinator and the spot, which was famously featured in Woody Allen’s opening act in his film “From Rome with Love” (watch it here). I always remember that moment in the film when I pass it in real life, because, given that Allen is a master of showing it as it is – he, literally, showed it as it is – the Roman guy in a white uniform gesturing the traffic, which makes no sense, because the traffic in that area is always a mess – no one seems to be paying attention to this traffic coordinator on his mini podium.
As you follow Via del Corso, take a de-tour – off this main street – and wonder into the ‘depth’ of the small alleys – the best way to discover hidden secrets of the city - and revisit the morning sights - Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, etc. – see them at night, which is very romantic and fascinating.
Your Second Day in Rome
Start off with the ‘outer circle’, cross the river via Ponte Umberto I bridge right into Palazzo di Giustizia (Palace of Justice, or, the 'ugliest building' as the Romans call it among each other) and walk along the riverfront towards Castel S. Angelo and Ponte Sant’ Angelo bridge – both the bridges and the houses along the river are worth to see.
Right off Castel S. Angelo on the left side of the castle will be Piazza Giovanni XXIII, which will lead you towards Piazza Pio XII via Via della Conciliazione towards Piazza San Pietro and Vatican. This is your second day destination – Vatican.
Give yourself at least 5-6 hours to explore the religious hub of the Roman Empire – the home of the 266th Bishop of Rome, Francis.
Sistine Chapel is an absolute must-see Roman sight, to be exact – the works of Michelangelo, his frescos on the ceiling and altar wall are arts’ finest achievement and certainly the largest work ever planned and carried out by one man. It’s breathless. St. Peter’s Basilica is also a fascinating place. It’s one of the biggest and most lavish Catholic cathedrals I’ve ever seen in my life. Don’t forget to visit the ‘basement’ rooms of the Basilica, which have the paths leading downstairs on the main floor of the cathedral. Go down and see the real coffins with the real remains of the Roman bishops and read the description of the good deeds they’ve done for the world and humanity. You might have a new appreciation of the Catholism after that.
After visiting Vatican, go back to the riverfront and walk along the river towards Trastevere region to have a nice dinner and digest, what you’ve just seen. Have dinner at Antica Focacceria San Francesco (Piazza di San Giovanni Della Malva 14, Trastevere, 00153 Rome, Italy) – a very popular restaurant among the Romans. One of their very roman pasta dish - Spaghetti alla Carbonara - is amazing, not to mention the fresh, off the boat, sardines from Sicily! But more about the Roman food in my next article.
Stay tuned for some great Roman cuisine and how to make them, along with what and how to drink when in Rome.
And if you happen to be in Italy during Halloween, do not worry, they celebrate it too. See how they do it here. More on Halloween in other countries, click the corresponding site: