We are often asked by people for practical travel advice when visiting Italy, and one of the more frequent questions we get is, “Can we do [insert city here] as a day trip?”. The short answer is – it depends.
What is your travel situation? Are you a young couple on a budget? Maybe you are a super adventurous solo traveler. Or perhaps you got stuck at Fiumicino Airport because your flight connection was canceled and now you find yourself with 10 hours in the Eternal City. Whatever your reasons for trying to “do” Rome in a day, we wouldn’t recommend it, but it IS possible, and here’s how…
Arrival – Roma Termini
You will inevitably begin your visit at this monumental edifice of post-war modernist architecture, inaugurated in 1950. No matter what direction you are coming into Rome, all rails will lead here, unless your service stops short at either Tiburtina or Ostiense, in which case you can easily take the Metro onward to Termini, and from there switch lines and continue to the first stop on your tour, Spagna.
The Spanish Steps
Convenient to the Metro, the wildly popular Scalinata, which aren’t Spanish at all, happen to be the result of the bequeathed funds of a French diplomat, and were designed by a late Baroque Italian architect. The Metro will spit you out at the top of the stairs in front of the 15th century church of Trinità dei Monti. From the top of the steps, work your down to the Piazza di Spagna, admire the Fontana della Barcaccia, and walk down the street left from the foot of the stairs toward the next stop.
Fontana di Trevi
Here we are at one of the most famous fountains in the world. This should be blatantly obvious by the thousand or so people crowding every square inch of real estate taking selfies for immediate immortalization on instagram and facebook. If you can get to the edge of the water, toss a coin over your left shoulder with your right hand to ensure a return visit to Rome, or so the legend goes. Be careful not to slip on the gelato that screaming three year old just dropped as you make your way out of the hoard down the street to the right facing away from the fountain.
Approaching down a narrow street and happening upon this massive monument of Ancient Rome one is awestruck by the awesomeness that is nearly 2000 years of history standing right before your eyes. The current structure was built in 126 AD by the Emperor Hadrian, and actually replaced an earlier temple built under the reign of Caesar Augustus. That temple was destroyed by fire in the year 80. The Pantheon we see today has been in continuous use since its construction, as a Roman Temple, and as a church and tomb since the sixth century. On the “Rome in a Day” tour, there is time to linger here, make your way inside, and marvel at the interior of this perfect dome with its oculus, the largest in the world for more than 1,300 years. Walking out, make your way to the left toward your next destination.
At this point on the tour you are likely getting hungry, but be warned! Piazza Navona is well known as a café hot-spot for outdoor dining, and as such is full of bad tourist food. Sorry, but you don’t have time to sit for that long anyway. There are many more sights to see! Linger in the Piazza just long enough to admire the fountains, the Egyptian obelisk, and imagine this place as it once was, the open floor of the 1st century Stadium of Domitian. Surrounding buildings still incorporate the original lower structures of the stadium shell. Make your way back to the southern end of the Piazza and continue your itinerary by making your way toward the River Tiber, and Vatican City.
The Vatican – St. Peter’s Basilica
The dome of St. Peter’s looms in the distance to your left as you cross the Ponte Sant’Angelo, built in 134AD, also by the Hadrian responsible for the current Pantheon. Directly in front at the foot of the bridge rises the iconic Castel Sant’Angelo, originally Hadrian’s tomb. Turning left just before the castle gate, it’s a straight shot down Mussolini’s Via della Conciliazione into the heart of St. Peter’s Square. From the square, admire the Tuscan columns encircling the piazza, and ponder how the 4,400 year old Egyptian obelisk was brought to Rome in the year 37AD, and then bore witness to Christian executions in the Circus of Nero, before being moved to its current location in 1586 to stand at the absolute center of Christendom.
Time permitting, the line to enter St. Peter’s moves relatively quickly. Ignore the aggressive guides who promise you’ll “skip the line” only to be escorted to an office half a mile away, and back again, as they gather more unsuspecting tourists to get the most bang for your euro. By the time you actually get inside with a tour group, you could have already been there, for free.
You cannot fully appreciate St. Peter’s Basilica, still the largest church in the world, from the outside. It is worth standing in this line to see this finest example of Renaissance architecture. Once inside, shafts of sunlight cut through the haze almost as if the interior has its own weather. Immediately upon entering the nave, to the right, see Michelangelo’s masterpiece, The Pietà. Make your way around the interior and refer to your guidebook for all the fascinating details, but don’t linger too long… there’s more to see outside!
As you exit the basilica make your way back down Via della Conciliazione toward the river. Take one of the staircases down to the riverbank footpath and continue your tour walking downstream along the river toward Tiber Island or Isola Tiberina, where you will cross and head toward the next stop.
After crossing at Tiber Island, continue downstream until you get to the next bridge, where you’ll cross the road to your left make your way behind the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin (where you’ll find the famous “mouth of truth”). The Circus Maximus sprawls out behind the church. Here you can roam (no pun intended) freely on the slopes of the ancient stadium, and run around the track pretending to be taking part in a Ben Hur style chariot race. The history here pre-dates the Roman Republic as races were likely held here more than 2500 years ago, and continued until the sixth century AD. After making your way around the circus, come up on the opposite side from the church, and continue your itinerary toward the Colosseum, keeping the Roman Forum on your left hand side.
As you approach Piazza del Colosseo, you head directly toward the triumphal Arch of Constantine. Built in the year 315AD to commemorate Constantine the Great‘s decisive victory over Maxentius at the battle of Milvian Bridge. Worth reading more about, and visiting the bridge which still spans the Tiber today. As you pass by the arch, the Colosseum towers above to the right. Completed in the year 80AD, it remains the largest amphitheater in the world with an original capacity of 87,000 people. At this point in the “Rome in a day” tour, it may be getting late, but take some time to walk around this epic monument, an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome, considered to be one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering. It was here that the famous gladiator shows were held. Feel free to get your picture taken with the re-enactors of gladiators and Roman soldiers, but be prepared to pay a hefty price for the privilege, even if you use your own camera. These guys are just trying to make a living, and certainly aren’t going to entertain you for free. Now walking onward to the Alter of the Fatherland or Altare della Patria keeping the Forum on your left.
Altare della Patria – Vittorio Emanuelle Monument
Built between 1885 and 1925, this white marble monument overlooking the Roman Forum was built as a memorial to the first king of unified Italy, Vittorio Emanuelle II. On the front side, facing away from the Colosseum, is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with its eternal flame, under constant guard by soldiers, and police who will shoo anyone away who is even perceived to be doing anything remotely disrespectful. This is a place for remembrance, not pictures, and certainly not for sitting on the stairs… just don’t do it. Continue up the stairs to the right of the eternal flame, and enter the structure, continuing up the stairs to the terrace. Follow the signs to the restaurant with panoramic balcony overlooking the Forum, or take the pay-elevator to the roof-top for a 360 degree view of the Eternal City to end your tour.
Rome in a day – Arrivederci
Coming down off the Altare della Patria, make you way back toward the Colosseum. The Colosseo Metro stop is located adjacent to the Colosseum on the opposite side of the road, to the left as you approach. One stop to Roma Termini, and your train out of town.
Once back at the train station, and you’ve purchased train tickets, if there’s still some time, head up to the mezzanine level cafeteria style restaurant for some cheap, good food.
You’ve just “done” Rome in one day. You’ve walked 10.5 km or 6.5 miles. Your feet hurt. You’re tired. But you have just witnessed thousands of years of history and done it in just 10-12 hours! You haven’t spent any money on an overpriced hotel in central Rome, and your budget hasn’t been busted by price gouging tour guides, and bad tourist food.
As you get comfortable on your train and it beings to pull away from the station, you will feel accomplished, but you should not feel satisfied. Today you have been teased by what Rome has to offer, and you should by now be craving more of it. If not now, then tomorrow, after you’ve rested a bit. Rome is not a city that a mere taste can satisfy.
Viewing the monumental architecture of this great city from the streets and sidewalks will get you the pictures we all see on television and in the guidebooks. But in order to appreciate it all more fully, it requires a more immersive experience. Days can be spent exploring the treasures of the Vatican Museums. Skirting the Roman Forum and viewing it from the terrace of the Vittorio Emanuelle Monuemnt while sipping an Aperol Spritz does not allow you to fully appreciate the history. Taking a picture with a re-enactor outside the Colosseum does not tell the whole story. The only way to get a TRUE historical experience in Rome is to really live it for a good three to five days. Stay on the outskirts to save some money, eat dinner in a local place where Romans go.
Avoid the urge to simply “check the block” on anything and make it your goal to come back to Rome to get a full authentic experience. After all, you did toss the coin over your left shoulder with your right hand at the Trevi Fountain. So that means you’ll be back for sure.