This post is part of our Italy vacation series. You can read more about it here.
Over the past year, I’ve earned tons of points and miles by strategically opening credit cards, taking surveys, and using online shopping portals with one goal in mind…get the cost of my trip to Italy as low as possible. You can read more about how I got our 11 day trip to Italy down to $150 per person here. While it’s fun to plan vacations, the best part of any trip is making the most of your time there. Over the next few posts, I’ll be sharing my itineraries for Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Venice, and Milan. First stop, Rome!
We were in Rome for four days and you could say we jammed a lot into our time there. Some of these days may sound exhausting, but I think you can definitely see the main points of interest in four days if you aren’t afraid of a packed itinerary and a fair bit of walking. Buckle up, this is going to be a long one!
Day 1 – City Center Sightseeing
On our first day in Rome, we landed at 12:40, got to our hotel by 1:30, and were ready to hit the ground running by 2:00. You’d be surprised how much you can see in your jet lag-induced haze!
We stayed at the Waldorf Astoria Rome Cavalieri which is a little bit out of the city center. While we did spend some money on cabs, we tried to rely on the free shuttle that drops you off at Piazza Barberini as much as possible. At Piazza Barberini, you’ll see the Triton Fountain sculpted by Bernini in 1642.
Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps
Both the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps are very close to Piazza Barberini. As two of the main things to see, we were excited to knock these off the list first. It’s about 0.4 miles from Barberini to the Trevi Fountain and another 0.4 miles to the Spanish Steps. Be prepared for some insane crowds at the Trevi Fountain no matter what time of day you go. Don’t forget to make a wish by throwing a coin into the fountain. Apparently the proper way to do so is by throwing a coin from your right hand over your left shoulder.
We grabbed a quick bite at La Sandwicheria (clever name, right?) before the next stop on our list. I love getting sandwiches in Italy because they’re so much fresher than anything you’ll get in the U.S. It’s not uncommon for the sandwich maker to freshly cut the cheese, meats, and vegetables for each sandwich. I worked at Subway in high school and I can assure you that is not how it’s done there…
Next stop, Villa Borghese, the largest public park in Rome. You may wish to visit for a nice stroll and some shade or to visit the world renowned Galleria Borghese, which is housed in the park’s namesake villa. If you’re interested in visiting the gallery, buy tickets ahead of time online or the day you arrive in Rome for later in the week. We arrived on a Saturday and the first available tickets were for Wednesday! From the Spanish Steps, it’s a 0.5 mile walk to the park’s borders and 1 mile to the gallery. Even if you don’t go into the museum, you may enjoy seeing the villa from the outside.
We then walked back across the park toward Piazza Bucarest. We stumbled upon this spot and got some of the best views of the city. If you walk a bit further, you can also get an aerial view of Piazza Popolo. This square borders the northern boundaries of the Aurelian Walls which marked Rome’s city limits back when it was constructed in the 2nd century AD. We headed down into the piazza before walking another mile to our last stop of the evening, the Pantheon. Tired yet??
Pantheon and Our First Italian Dinner
Our last stop of the day was my favorite. The Pantheon is a former Roman temple that is now a church. While the current building was completed circa 128 AD by the emperor Hadrian, the original temple was commissioned in 27 BC. Stopping here made me realize how old some of the things we’d be seeing in Rome really are. And I thought my dad’s house being built in 1732 was old!
After checking out the Pantheon, we headed around the corner to a restaurant called Maccheroni. Their outdoor seating, homemade pasta, and inexpensive liter of house wine was exactly what we needed after a long day of sightseeing. I highly recommend getting the Cacio e Pepe which translates to cheese and pepper. Simple, but delicious!
After dinner, we went back to the Rome Cavalieri and had our free welcome drink, one of the perks of being a Hilton Gold member.
Day 2 – Ancient Rome
Our second day was all about Ancient Rome. We decided to head over early to hopefully beat the midday crowds.
Ancient Roman Hotspots
The Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill are definitely the main ancient Rome attractions. One ticket will grant you access to all three. What a lot of people don’t realize is that you can buy the ticket at any entrance to Palatine Hill, the Forum, or the Colosseum. Since Palatine Hill is wayyyy less crowded than the Colosseum, buy your ticket here and then breeze by the lines of people waiting to buy tickets for the Colosseum. This is guaranteed to save you at least 45 minutes. The ticket office opens at 8:30am. I recommend going early before it gets too hot.
The ancient chariot racing stadium, Circus Maximus, can be seen from Palatine Hill. Now a public park, I recommend walking the extra 3/4 of a mile to check it out up close.
If you don’t mind a little extra walking, a half mile from Circus Maximus is the Aventine Keyhole, also known as the Knights of Malta keyhole. By looking through the keyhole of the gate to the Knights of Malta headquarters on Aventine Hill, you can see St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance perfectly aligned through a beautiful garden. You’ll know you’ve found it when you see a line of people standing outside a green door. It’s unknown if this was planned or a perfect coincidence.
Baths of Caracalla and the Appian Way
Looking for more ancient Rome? About 1.2 miles from the keyhole is the Baths of Caracalla. The baths were likely built between 212 and 216 AD and were in use until the 530s. You can visit the baths for 6 euro. We didn’t end up buying a ticket but checked it out from the periphery on our way to the Appian Way.
Another mile from the baths is the Appian Way, one of the most important historical roads in Rome. The road starts at Porta San Sebastiano which is the gate of the Aurelian Walls. If you keep walking, you’ll reach the Appian Way Regional Park which contains monuments including some tombs, catacombs, and more.
Piazza Venezia and Capitoline Hill
I’ll admit walking all the way to the Appian Way really tired us out. I’d suggest renting some bikes if possible. We ended up getting a cab to our next stop, Piazza Venezia, one of Rome’s major thoroughfares. On the piazza is the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the massive white building you may have noticed. Here you can see the Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Near the monument is Trajan’s Forum which offers some more ruins if you haven’t seen enough yet. Also near Piazza Venezia is Capitoline Hill. In one day we managed to visit three of Rome’s seven hills! At the top of the hill you’ll see the Piazza del Campidoglio. Capitoline Hill also offers some great views overlooking the Roman Forum. Make sure to check out the massive statues of Castor and Pollux (aka Gemini) at the top.
Piazza Navona and a Coffee Break
From Capitoline Hill we walked half a mile to Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè. I really wanted to try one of their famous cappuccinos but that wasn’t happening on a 95 degree day. I ended up getting a refreshing granita which I enjoyed while walking around Piazza Navona (a quarter mile walk).
At Piazza Navona, you can see several fountains including the Fountain of the Four Rivers (with its Egyptian obelisk!) and the Fountain of Neptune, which was unfortunately under restoration when we visited.
Dinner and Our First Gelato
After our coffees, we headed back to the Rome Cavalieri for a much needed dip in the pool! We covered a lot of ground but ventured back to the city center for dinner. We ate at an awesome charcuterie place called La Prosciutteria. This restaurant is tiny and you will probably have to wait if you go after 7pm, but it’s totally worth it. Despite having two locations in Rome and several others throughout Italy, La Prosciutteria maintains a unique and authentic vibe. Best charcuterie board ever.
The La Prosciutteria location we visited was over by the Trevi Fountain so it was cool to check it out at night. We walked about a half a mile to get gelato at Giolitti which has been open since 1900! We could definitely tell the difference between this gelato and ones we’ve had in the U.S. Good Italian gelato really captures the flavor in a way that imitation gelatos can’t seem to mimic.
Day 3 – Vatican City
Vatican City may be tiny but definitely plan on spending a full day here!
St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museums
We arrived at the Vatican bright and early to avoid the line to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. We got there right at 7am and were able to breeze through security. Make sure to cover your knees and shoulders! We took a quick peak in the basilica before making a beeline to the stairs for the Dome. It costs 6 euros to climb to the top but the view is a must-see. I also recommend going as early as possible so you can enjoy the views without a zillion other people. By mid-morning, the line to get into St. Peter’s Basilica and the line for the dome are insane.
We spent some more time in the basilica and the crypts underneath (aka the grottoes) before heading to the Vatican Museums around 10:30am. The museum entrance is outside of the Vatican walls. There’s always a massive line of people so you can’t miss it. Do yourself a favor and buy your tickets ahead of time. We saved about 2 hours by doing so. Unfortunately, we were there at a very busy time and we kept getting stuck in tour groups. I honestly felt like I was in a herd of sheep being shuffled from room to room. It wasn’t very enjoyable but seeing the Sistine Chapel at the end helped make up for the sweaty chaos.
If you know you’ll be in Rome far in advance, I HIGHLY recommend booking the Scavi Tour at St. Peter’s Basilica. This was a highlight of my entire trip. This tour hosted through the Vatican Excavation Office allows 250 people per day to see the excavations below the basilica. You may not have realized but St. Peter’s Basilica was built on top of an ancient Roman necropolis and the tomb of St. Peter himself. For 13 euros, you’ll be led through the “streets” of the necropolis which is located another story below the grottoes. The tour size is small, about 12 people, and is led by one of the archeologists working in the Vatican. You have to request a tour by emailing the Scavi office. If a date is available, they’ll walk you through the online payment process. I booked at the beginning of January for our trip at the end of June and had no issues securing a spot.
Amatriciana and a Local Gelato Spot
That evening we had a reservation at Trattoria Vecchia Roma. This had a local vibe which was a nice change from eating over by the Panetheon. You have to order the bucatini all’Amatriciana. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. This restaurant also had the most inexpensive wine we came across in Italy.
After dinner we stopped at Fassi Gelateria. This place was definitely filled with locals which again was a nice break from the touristy areas. The gelato wasn’t our favorite but I still recommend stopping by for the experience.
And last but not least, my boyfriend proposed on our private terrace at the hotel after dinner! What an end to an already perfect day 🙂
Day 4 – A Relaxed Day of Sightseeing
We’d been pretty busy our first few days in Rome and we sure did cover a lot. Our last day was a bit more laid back and less structured.
In the morning, we headed to the other side of the Tiber to check out Trastevere, a neighborhood known for its quaint and winding streets. On our way, we stopped at the Mouth of Truth as seen in the movie Roman Holiday. While in Trastevere, we went to the Basilica of Santa Maria. I think it’s worth going to Trastevere just to see this beautiful church.
Crypts and Catacombs
That afternoon we took a tour through City Wonders called Crypts and Catacombs which I got for free by using Barclaycard Arrival Plus miles. First we visited one of the ancient catacombs located near the Appian Way. Dating back to the 2nd century AD, this underground network of tombs was one of the first burial grounds for Christians in Rome. Next we stopped at the Basilica of San Clemente. This was my favorite stop because it really shows you just how old Rome is. On the ground level you’ll see a basilica from the 12th century, but what you can’t see is that this basilica was build on top of one from the 4th century. Even crazier, that basilica was build on a Roman temple from the 2nd century. And yes, you get to go deeper and deeper underground to visit all three. Last but not least is the Capuchin Crypt which is decorated with the bones of 4,000 Capuchin monks. Very creepy (some skeletons still had skin on them *gagging*), but worth seeing. Of course you can visit all of these sites on your own, but it’s so much easier having an air conditioned bus with a knowledgable tour guide leading the way.
The Last Supper
I know the Last Supper is in Milan but our last dinner was one of our favorites. We ate over by the Pantheon again since we loved the vibe and the outdoor eating options. We picked Ristorante Clemente Alla Maddalena. It was a bit more expensive and didn’t have the greatest reviews but I though their homemade pasta was amazing.
What a great introduction to Italy! Rome was everything I had hoped and more. We jammed a lot into our 4 days, but I like walking away knowing I saw as much as I could in the short time I had to spend there. We continued our adventure by taking the train to Florence the next morning. Be sure to follow along as I can continue to share our itineraries!
More from our Italy vacation:
Points and Miles Guide:
How I’m Spending 11 Days in Italy for Less Than $150
Part 2: Florence in 48 Hours
Part 3: The Best of Tuscany in One Day
Part 4: 48 Hours in Venice
Part 5: One Night in Milan
Hotel Review: Waldorf Astoria Rome Cavalieri
Hotel Review: JW Marriott Venice
Hotel Review: Park Hyatt Milan
Priority Pass Lounge Review: Air France Lounge at Boston Logan Airport
Priority Pass Lounge Review: Club S.E.A. Sala Leonardo at Milan Linate Airport