This is what we did over a few days on our first time visiting Rome. We were, to be honest, ready not to like Rome. We don’t tend to love the major capital cities. Paris and Berlin didn’t really do it for me and I can’t stick London. But there was something different about Rome. It’s not too humungous, but is still imposing – in a positive way. You also 100% know you’re in Italy, whereas with some capitals you could be anywhere.
Anyway, this is a very quick overview. We were only in Rome for 4 nights. If you have longer, you can fit more in and there’ll always be something for next time because it’s a really intense city. But this little guide might be a useful starting point for your first trip to Rome…
The main sights in Rome
There are literally hundreds of sights crammed into Rome, so go armed with a little guidebook and pick which you really want to see. They’re mostly all walkable and close together, so it’s possible to fit lots in even on a short trip. Just don’t try to do too much because you kind of have to accept that it’d be impossible to see everything and you don’t want to be rushing the whole time. Just wandering aimlessly through Rome’s gorgeous streets for a bit is really nice, rather than rushing from sight to sight. You’ll always stumble across something worth digging the camera out for, eating, or both.
My all-time favourite oval amphitheatre. Other oval amphitheatres need not apply.
The Colosseum is of course the first thing people go to see in Rome. So you might think it’ll be overrated like the Eiffel Tower, but it’s not. It really is impressive. Do not miss it whatever you do. It’s actually terrifying when you think how old it is and you’re walking on it. You can deffo imagine Russell Crowe in Gladiator appearing from behind a pillar to throw a telephone at you.
Do bear in mind that the queues are absolutely hideous for the Colosseum. So plan ahead. We got the Colosseum/Roman Forum/Palatine Hill combined ticket when we were at the Roman Forum and there was no queue to get that at all. It allowed us to skip the queue for the Colosseum and cost 12 euro. Buy it online before you go if you want to be organised.
St Peter’s Square and The Vatican
How many cities can you go to in which you can visit a separate state?! It’s the smallest independent state in the world, too. The Vatican area is very much worth spending a good half a day in, especially if you want to take in lots of St Peter’s Basilica and the museums. When we went, the old pope was leaving so it was absolutely crammed with people. You couldn’t move for confused, ancient members of the clergy milling around. All you could hear was “Has anyone seen Sister Kathleen?” and “I thought she was with you, Father”. So er, hopefully the current pope will behave himself and stay put for your visit. Enjoy.
You can’t miss wandering through the ruins of the original heart of Rome. It was really impressive seeing how much is left of a once huge great city (clue: bloody loads is left, when you think about how long it’s been there with people traipsing all over it). I thought the best bit to see it all was to go up Palatine Hill, which isn’t too bad to walk up even by my lazy standards.
It’s one of the best-preserved of all Roman buildings and a former Roman temple, so it’s going to be on your to-do list from the start. Again, it’s a busy one but worth seeing its total whopper of a dome from the inside.
The Spanish Steps
I feel like I have to include The Spanish Steps. Disappointingly, they’re not the Spanish version of that iconic early noughties pop act. They are just some steps. If they’re not too busy, they make for a good place to sit with a gelato for a spot of people watching. Being on the main drag, you’ll walk past them and see them regardless of seeking them out. Guide books really do bang on about them and I suppose it’s worth it to say you’ve seen them. And possibly STOMPed up them. Thank you. I’m here all week.
Of course, this is unmissable. It’s an absolute mother of a fountain. If you throw a coin in, they say you’ll return to Rome. You’d have to if you needed to get your coin back. The Trevi Fountain is really lovely but very busy. As ever, don’t be a numpty in the crowd. Men hanging around will ask to take your photo with it, so obviously ignore them.
This is the absolute best area for a wander or a drink (see further down for more on that). Lots of narrow streets, colourful buildings and little cafes, and it’s a bit quieter than the main touristy parts.
Ooh, a bit of an off-piste choice here and probably not on many other lists of main Roman sights. But this was my favourite walk we did so I have to include it. I always enjoy (ish) dragging myself up a hill/tower/viewing point to have a good peruse of a city’s skyline. As hills go, Janiculum makes the Palatine one look like a small mole has created it. But if you Google the view, you’ll see why it’s worth hauling yourself up the steps for. I won’t insert a photo to spoil it for you here. We went early evening and the light was lovely. It’s also not very touristy. We had it to ourselves after a couple of dogwalkers had left (sadly the dogs also went, despite me trying to pet them ALL).
Where to eat in Rome
Rome is such a foodie city. Everywhere we ate was exquisite, but these were the best.
Like with most cities, avoid any restaurants in the main piazzas (squares) where you can sit outside. These are fine for a people watching sesh and an overpriced drink (you’ll pay extra to sit outside, mind you) but the food will be extortionate and aimed at tourists. Similarly, all the restaurants with waiters outside trying to coax you in are obvious tourist trap rip-offs, the same as any other city. It’s worth going off the beaten track a bit.
- Ristorante La Tavernetta 48, Via degli Spagnoli 48. This was annoying to find but 100% worth going to. If you book it in advance (or get your hotel to do it for you if you’re a wimp like we were), you get a free glass of prosecco on arrival. The food was ridiculously good. I had the balsamic steak and it’s still one of the most memorable things I’ve ever eaten. Be careful though, because there is another restaurant with a very similar name (without the 48 on the end) so make sure you’re headed for the right one with the correct address and so on.
- Marco G’s, Via Garibaldi, 56, (Trastevere). Have the pumpkin ravioli to start or the mozzarella three ways. It’s particularly handy for going for a drink after you’ve eaten because it’s in the middle of Trastevere and surrounded by good options.
- Baguetteria del Fico, Della Fossa 12. Craft beer and baguettes galore but not as achingly hipster as it sounds. This is just a v stylish deli-style cafe. Ideal for a lunch stop.
- Mercato Centrale, Via Giovanni Giolitti 36. It’s a food market next door to Termini station, with loads of choice and affordable, local grub for lunch.
Also, you have to have gelato. At least once. Per day. There are so many gelato shops but the way to tell if it’s an authentic one or a tacky one is the colour of their pistachio ice cream apparently. Bright lurid green is a no-no, so keep your beadiest of eyes out for a soft sage shade.
Transport and getting around in Rome
- Taxi drivers can be tricky in Rome, like in lots of cities. The thing to do is agree the price before you get in. We avoided them altogether when we went because the metro and walking were fine.
- Taxis from the airports (Fiumicino or Ciampino) aren’t the most economical option.
- Getting into Rome from the airports is easy. Fiumicino has a train called the ‘Leonardo Express’ every half an hour, which transports people to and from the airport to Termini Station in the centre of Rome. Ciampino has a shuttle service ‘Terravision’ which will also transport you directly to Termini Station. Sorted.
- Ticket machines for the metro can have queues and it’s fiddly/more expensive to buy a ticket for every single journey you make. So it’s really handy to get a tourist ticket (see all the different types here). They work on all public transport within Rome – buses, metro, trains, trams – so you don’t have to think about it once you’re sorted with one. You can buy them from a machine at Termini Station or online.
Where to go for drinks in Rome
- The Trastevere area is the best for wandering around then having some way-too-early drinks. When in Rome, have an aperol spritz at one minute past noon, yeah? Trastevere is very quirky, full of cute little cobbled streets, second-hand clothes shops and bars.
- We went to Ombre Rosse (Piazza S.Egidio 12/13) and sat outside having a good old people watch for ages. It’s amazing how many people own a pair of Crocs you know. And even more so, how many people decide to take them on holiday. Unfathomable.
- Have some Frascati white wine while you’re in Rome. Frascati the place itself is only a short train journey from Rome so it doesn’t get any fresher (actually, Frascati is lovely for an afternoon trip out of the city, too).
Other stuff you need to know before you go to Rome
- Everyone bangs on about pickpockets and scams in Rome, to the point you could almost be put off going. We only noticed them by the Trevi Fountain. The rest of the time we were just careful and it wasn’t a problem at all. Do all the usual stuff like making sure your bag is on your knee where you can see it on the bus/metro and not wandering round waving your phone about in crowds. You’re not an idiot though so you don’t need me to tell you this do you? DO YOU?
- Avoid July and August. It’s so hot that all the locals get sick of their hair being ruined by humidity, so they shut shop and go off somewhere else.
- The biggest problem for me was COBBLES. Now, I love a cute cobblestoned lane as much as the next person trying to get a pretty Instagram shot. But all my shoes apart from Converse type ones were battered by the end of a few days in Rome, and I’m from a very cobbley city so this is not alien terrain for me. Something to bear in mind when you’re pondering ramming another pair of shoes into your suitcase using a wrench.
- Be aware that there’s a city tax for staying in Rome, which your hotel has to pay the municipality. It’s worth checking if it’s already included in the price or if you have to pay it at the end.
- If you have a reusable water bottle (and if you don’t, why don’t you?!) you can refill it everywhere around Rome because they have free drinking water taps on every corner. Saving the planet and staying hydrated AF.
Your first time visiting Rome: useful information
How to get there (and away)
We flew from Manchester, which took about 2 hours and 40 minutes. Then, getting into Rome city centre from the airport was easy. Fiumicino has a train called the ‘Leonardo Express’ every half an hour, which transports people to and from the airport to Termini Station in the centre of Rome. If you fly into Rome’s other airport, Ciampino, it has a shuttle service ‘Terravision’ which will also transport you directly to Termini Station. Easy.
Where to stay
We didn’t actually like the hotel we stayed in, so won’t link it here, but there are SO many places to choose from you’ll be spoilt for choice. And there’s something for every budget: there’s even the option of staying further out and getting the bus or metro in. I think on our next trip, we’ll hire an apartment and attempt to live like a local in Trastevere.
How to get around
Most places are walkable but the metro and buses are great. Avoid taxis if you can (see earlier in the post).
When to go
We visited in February, and it was lovely. The tourist attractions were fairly quiet for a capital city standard and the weather was warm for the time of year (compared with the UK of course). It’s one of those cities that is good all year round apart from the height of summer when it shuts down, in the words of Stormzy. So avoid then, unless you’re into humidity and sweating profusely on buses.
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You might also like my other Italy posts:
- 2 days in Venice itinerary and city guide
- How to do a day trip from Venice to Burano island
- How to do a Siena day trip from Florence: a perfect one-day itinerary
- What to do in Lucca [coming soon]
- Two days in Florence: an itinerary [coming soon].
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