Rome in a Day: Timeless Highlights

Question: Can you “do” Rome in 24 hours?

Answer: No. Not even close.

But, even if you only have 24 hours, you can see many of the highlights that make Rome timeless, as we discovered on our first visit – really, more of a long lay-over transitioning from airplanes to ships. We chose to take an extra day before a Mediterranean cruise, and we highly recommend both the cruise and the extra day (or more).

The key to making the most of any short visit is having a plan: Know where you want to go, what you want to see, and what you want to do. This is where you pull out your bucket list and choose the top few things to scratch off. Of course, Rome deserves so much more than a “check the box” visit, but it is the Eternal City. You can always come back. We’re pretty sure it will still be there.

If it’s your first visit, or you’ve just never done it before, we recommend staying in the Centro Storico. The historic city center is home to some of the world’s best known sites with easy transportation options and lots of quality hotels. We also recommend booking “skip the line” guided tours, especially for the Colosseum and the Vatican. They can be pricey, but it’s the best way to see the most because, if there is one thing you can count on in such a popular destination, it’s a line for pretty much everything. Overall, you’ll get more bang for your buck when you cough up a few for the tours. If you’re a seasoned DIY tourist, you can skip many lines with advance-purchase tickets and self-guided tours, also.

Although we managed to visit all of our Must See Sites, we came away with even more places on the list to tempt us back. Aside from the monuments, museums and fountains, though, we really want to return with more time to just be in Rome. It’s an amazing city with an energy and vibe that’s truly contagious. We can’t wait to go back, but here’s How We Conquered Rome in 24 Hours.

The road to the Colosseum - Rome in a Day via @TravelLatte.net

Tip number one: Take a taxi. Sure, you can get around yourself, but not as quickly and easily.

Getting Around Quickly

Historic Rome is very walkable. It’s just about five kilometers from Roma Termini, the main train station, to Vatican City, which is pretty much “all the way across town.” A stroll from Piazza Navona to the Spanish Steps will take you about 20 minutes…provided you don’t stop at every café and gelateria along the way. Still, in the interest of time, and as first-timers in a city of narrow twisty lanes, we chose to take a taxi for some of the longer distances, which generally ran about 10 Euros (with tips).

Why not Uber?

While Uber is almost always less expensive, taxi’s are readily available almost everywhere you go in Rome. You can hop in one and be halfway to your next destination in the time it sometimes takes Uber to get to you. The balance of time versus cost generally fell in the cab’s favor during our visit. This is not always the case, though, so check your Uber app.

Long lines to get into the Colosseum.

Long lines at many sites are a fact of life. Planning your visit for very early or very late is one way to cut down wait time.

The Colosseum & Roman Forum

We booked an afternoon “skip the line” tour for the Colosseum far in advance with Walks of Italy, and it paid off almost immediately as our guide escorted us past throngs of waiting tourists to a group entrance. We were inside and exploring the incredible structure in less than twenty minutes, and spent the next three hours walking through the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum with our guide. Having actually worked as an archaeologist in the Forum, she had great insight and anecdotes related to Roman life, architecture, history and culture. We definitely had a better experience with a guide than we would have on our own – and not just because she got us past that line!

If you’re on a tight schedule, you could certainly see just the Colosseum, and see it all in an hour or less, but the adjoining ruins of Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum are easily worth the extra time. Palatine Hill, one of Rome’s famed Seven Hills, is literally the birthplace of Rome, as well as the word “palace.” This is where generations of Rome’s elite lived, building their grand estates – or palaces – on the remains of earlier construction. During his reign, Caesar Augustus declared it the site of the original Roman settlement, based on bronze-age fragments found there. Ironically, modern archeologists found what they believe to be the home where Augustus himself was born on Palatine Hill. Both excavations are on view.

Palacial Ruins on Palatine Hill

The palacial ruins on Palatine Hill give you a sense of the grandeur Rome’s upper crust was accustomed to, as they looked down on the Forum below.

The Forum was the heart of the ancient city, where Citizens and Senators alike attended to their spiritual lives at the many temples, and their secular needs at shops, restaurants and businesses. It was here that the Republic was formed, and where it ended with the brutal assassination of Caesar. Even afterwards, it was the center of the Roman Empire for centuries.

Entering the Roman Forum

While the Colosseum is amazing, the Forum is where Roman’s spent their days. We’re so glad we spent part of ours here.

Time spent: 3-1/2 hours. Cost: 54 Euros (per person) for the tour, 10 Euros for the taxi.

Piazzas and Pizzas

Rome is home to many truly amazing restaurants. However, if you’re trying to squeeze everything into one day and venturing to La Pergola didn’t make your bucket list, despite their three Michelin Stars, you can find good, though sometimes touristy meals at many restaurants found at – and between – every piazza. We stopped for some great gnocchi, and disappointing pizza, while we gawked at four of the main sites on everyone’s Roman walking tour: the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and Piazza Navona. Nicely, they form a rough triangle, with the Pantheon in line between Piazza Trevi and Navona.

Approaching the Pantheon

The Pantheon has stood the test of time better than many of Rome’s antiquities, and remains as impressive as ever.

Of these stops, the Pantheon is where you’re likely to spend the most time. The iconic structure is now a church, and is free and open to the public, which means it can also be very crowded. Inside, you’ll find the tombs of Renaissance artist Rafael, King Emmanuel Vittorio II, and others, along with some beautiful art. Unfortunately, the Trevi Fountain was dry during our visit (renovations began in June 2014 and should be complete by August 2015), but still seemed to be the most touristy stop on the route, with tons of street vendors crowding the small square.

We ended our Do It Yourself tour at Piazza Navona, the former chariot raceway turned into a beautiful public square fronting the magnificent Palazzo Pamphili, once the home of Pope Innocent X. It is much larger – and therefore seems less crowded – than Piazza di Trevi, and Bernini’s fantastic Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of Four Rivers) is a good stand in for its more famous counterpart. As the evening got later, the atmosphere got livelier, with artists and performers, a band (playing Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” from beginning to end!), and people from around the world enjoying a warm Roman evening.

Photo of Rome's Piazza Navona

Day or night, Roman life spills into Piazza Navona with artists and entertainers, restaurants, beautiful fountains and plenty of people.

Time Spent: 6 hours (walking, shopping & dining) Cost: Sightseeing is free! Meals ranged from 5 to 9 Euros, gelato about 2 Euros each. (We enjoyed several and didn’t even feel guilty!)

Vatican City

Once again, a pre-arranged “skip the line” tour saved a very long wait in line, and an early start got us to the heart of the Vatican while most visitors were still waiting to buy tickets. Our Vatican tour with Walks of Italy met at a corner café at 7:30. By 8am (a full hour before opening to the general public) we were walking through the Vatican Museum and soon had the Sistine Chapel almost to ourselves. Our group of 12, and another small group were the only ones inside the small but stunning space. Afterwards, we toured the Museum and papal apartments, and St. Peter’s Basilica. Looping back through the Sistine Chapel later in the morning we realized how privileged we were to enjoy the quiet of morning without wall-to-wall people.

Photo of a hall gallery in the Vatican Museum

Visiting the Vatican early in the morning lets you enjoy the Museum galleries while everyone else makes a mad dash for the Sistine Chapel.

While our tour was almost four hours long, you could easily spend a full day or more in the Vatican Museum and several hours in St. Peters. We chose to spend some extra time at the Basilica to see the Vatican grotto and tomb of St. Peter. You can also climb the dome of the Basilica if time allows; the line is usually quite long. If you’re truly pressed for time and just want the highlights, there are shorter tours and self-guided tours that include the Sistine Chapel, the Rafael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello), and the Basilica, which is free to enter.

Time Spent: 5 Hours. Cost: 84 Euros (pp) for the tour, 10 Euros for the taxi

Photo of the Vatican's Cafe

Don’t worry about missing breakfast to get an early start at the Vatican. You can always grab a pastry and espresso at the “Vatican Cafe” – just downstairs from the Sistine Chapel!

Easy Additions that are Hard to Pass Up

Il Vittoriano – It takes almost as long to list the various names of this landmark as it takes to visit the site, which is close to the Colosseum and Capitoline Hill. It’s officially the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland), but is also known as the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II (National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II), and locally as Il Vittoriano. It’s a huge monument built in honor of the first king of a unified Italy, and thus houses the Museum of Italian Unification. For most, the highlight is taking the panoramic elevator to the top for stunning 360-degree views of Rome.

Near the Vatican is the beautiful Castel Sant’Angelo, also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian, commissioned by the Roman Emperor, later used as a Papal castle and fortress, and now a museum featuring works of art and displays of ancient weapons. Most tours dedicated to Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” make a stop here. It really was once (and maybe still is?) connected to the Vatican when the castle served as a papal residence.

Ready to go see Rome?

These tips can save you time, and the OMNIA Vatican & Rome Pass can save you money, too. The Rome & Vatican Pass includes entry to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, plus two other Rome attractions. The included Fast Pass entry for the Sistine Chapel and Colosseum will save you even more time! See all that’s included & get your OMNIA Vatican & Rome Pass.
Omnia Vatican & Rome Pass via @TravelLatte.net

At the top of the Spanish Steps is the Borghese Gardens, one of the largest public parks in Rome and home to a handful of magnificent museums. The area includes the opulent Villa Medici, once belonging to the powerful Medici family but home to the French Academy of Rome (off and on) since 1803. Inside of the Villa Borghese is the stunning Borghese Gallery, one of the best museums in Rome, featuring works by Renaissance masters in their original settings. And in one of the buildings built for the 1911 World Exposition is the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, with a collection of 19th- and 20th-century paintings emphasizing Italian artists. You can exit the Borghese Gardens at the sprawling Piazza del Popolo, where we recommend a bite and espresso while people-watching at the iconic Caffe Rosati, serving Romans (and tourists) for nearly a century. With all of the museums and the expansive gardens, a tour through the park can take the better part of a day.

We gave it a good shot, but you really can’t “do” Rome in a day. Still, with so much to do just in the historic city center, a day in Rome can certainly be fantastic!

Details & Disclaimers: We booked our tours with Walks of Italy anonymously, and had a great time with them. They neither solicited nor compensated us for inclusion in this article. This post includes affiliate links. If you purchase a product or service by following a link on our site, your price remains the same though we may be compensated. All views are our own, and are based on our experiences.

18 comments on “Rome in a Day: Timeless Highlights

  1. I loved Rome. There’s so much history there, you can’t walk down the street without stumbling across something ancient and gorgeous. We spent a week there and I felt like we barely scratched the surface of what there was to discover.
    Loved reading about your adventures there and your photos are great!

    • Thanks Kelly! Glad you liked the photos. We absolutely love Rome and can’t wait to get back. But wow…I think even a month would still only be scratching the surface! Maybe one day we’ll get a chance to put that theory to the test. 😉 Thanks for reading our blog!

  2. Rome is one of those destinations that has always been on the list but life happens and never get there. Hope that when the time does come, I have more than 24 hours but then again, if that’s all I got, this is a great guide!

    • Hi Jessica – thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the comments. I know some get intimidated when there are so many great things to see – where do you start? If our post helps even a little, we’re happy! 🙂 Go see Rome – you will LOVE it!

  3. Thank you so much for the overview! It’s hard when you have a limited amount of time in a place, but you’ve gotta make the most of it! And you’re right, you can always return. Thanks for linking up with #WeekendWanderlust!

    • It’s funny how often we say we can always go back…but there is so much world to see that sometimes it’s hard to schedule those return trips! But in our list of cities that are worth return visits, Rome is way up there! In fact, most of Italy is. 😉

    • Hi Carmen – thanks for stopping by! You’re right, there is SO much to see in Rome. We never got out of Centro Storico on that visit, so we have that same feeling of missing things. But even some of the places we did see, like the Vatican Museum, have so much to offer that just a day there is not enough. Must go back! 🙂

  4. We love Rome, this past summer was our fifth time there. We love the food and all the sights. Haven’t tried a tour with walks of Italy but sure looks like a good idea, especially if you don’t have much time. Thanks for taking us back there!

    • Fifth? Wow, I’m super jealous. 🙂 We were delighted with the folks at Walks of Italy, and I hear good comments about many of the tour operators. They are really helpful when you don’t have much time. Even if you are not a fan of organized tours, skipping the lines to get in could be worth the price. The line at the Colosseum convinced us of that!

  5. Booking in advance is the way to do it!! I’ve been to Rome twice, once with a group (so we had immediate access to everything without waiting) and one on my own. During my last visit I booked the Vatican tickets in advance and it was a lifesaver. It was cheaper than your version as we didn’t have a guide (still it was 5 euros more than paying at the entrance). Yes 24hrs is a short time, but it is doable and I can assure you that the Borghese gardens and the gallery are worth visiting!!

    • Agreed – having never been, we thought a guide would be helpful to point us towards some of the highlights. Turns out, they were helpful in navigating the Vatican Museum also. A lot depends on your comfort level. I think an extra 5 EUR is very worth it to skip the line! Thanks for the feedback, Anna!

  6. I’ve never been too keen on tours, but this has convinced me that it may be a good idea when we go to Rome in May! We won’t be there long so in this case it does sound like an easier way to do it. I especially like the idea of visiting the Vatican so early! Having been in a very crowded Sistine Chapel before, you were indeed very privileged!!

    • Hi Gemma – thanks for stopping by! In retrospect, the early access to the Sistine Chapel was the highlight. That was a very special experience. At very least, I like Anna’s suggestion of getting entrance tickets in advance. Enjoy your trip!

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