The Perfect Day in Rome

The precise formula for a perfect day in Rome is highly personal, but visitors hoping to make the most of a single day in the Italian capital should start with an early morning visit to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, followed by a peek inside the Pantheon on the way to the Forum and Colosseum. Rome is stunningly gorgeous at night, so use your last bit of energy to chase panoramic views and to soak in the atmosphere of the historical center’s piazzas and fountains.

Piazza del Colosseo, 00184 Roma RM, Italy
No matter how many postcards you’ve seen of Rome’s iconic Colosseum, you just don’t get it until you pass beneath its crumbling arches. Built by Emperor Vespasian in 72 C.E., the huge amphitheater held 50,000 spectators and marked its opening with 100 days of brutal spectacles like gladiator combat and animal fights. The Colosseum was in use for four centuries, and now you can tour the ruins. Walk through the Hypogeum, an intricate series of tunnels and elevators originally used to transport animals, slaves, and gladiators, to the performance above, or take a moonlit tour to have one of the world’s most storied structures all to yourself.
Piazza di Trevi, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Fontana di Trevi is, as it should be, one of the most visited landmarks in Rome. Seeing it is worth the blind stumble through narrow stone streets and alleyways. But do so at night (and in the rain, if possible) to be rewarded with the stunning sight of the immense baroque fountain lit before a dark and shining background, like a scene from a Fellini movie. This is when the Trevi Fountain is at her most beautiful and most magical self.
Piazza della Rotonda, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
This 1st-century wonder will take your breath away. Not only is it one of the city’s most ancient sites, it’s been in continuous use for centuries. Originally built as a private temple, today it is a Catholic church and the resting place of Italian kings and the artist Raphael. Make the most of a wet day in Rome and watch as the rain falls through the center oculus.
Piazza Navona, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Even with Segway tours rolling through and street performers loudly competing for audiences, the 15th-century Piazza Navona somehow retains a shred of grace and elegance in modern Rome. Calm Renaissance palazzi face the piazza’s centerpiece, the famous and complicated Bernini work, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (“Are these colossal male depictions of the four great rivers of the world writhing on top of a boulder not fancy enough? Let’s top it with an obelisk for a little visual interest.”). The piazza itself was created when a 1st-century arena was paved over to create a market square—you can still sense the oval track of the arena in the shape of the opening. Come for a gelato and some excellent people-watching, especially in the evening.
Piazza San Pietro, 00120 Città del Vaticano, Vatican City
One of my most memorable stops in Rome was of course the Piazza San Pietro and with it, the Basilica, and Vatican City. This huge square was laid in 1657 and holds the 400,000 worshippers and visitors who crowd this vast area in times of celebration. There is a colonnade with columns and 140 statues of saints on each side of the piazza. They seem to frame the square. At the center and head of the square is the Basilica. St. Peter’s Basilica is an immense space that holds 60,000 people. It is open daily. This magnificent building holds many works of art in the church proper and in the treasury. Michelangelo’s “Pieta” is to the right of the entrance in the Basilica. Don’t miss a visit to the crypt underneath the church where you will see the simple tomb of Pope John Paul II. But most tourists will visit the tomb of St. Peter, the first Pope. You can take the elevator and walk around inside the dome. You’ll find a coffee shop on the roof. Visit Vatican City. It is the smallest state in the world. I went to the book shop and Vatican Post Office and mailed postcards from their own post office. Vatican City is the papal residence. The Sistine Chapel was a must-visit for me, as I wanted to see the ceiling in person. Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” was magnificent. I also went to a general papal audience, which was very rewarding as I had a seat about 8 rows up toward the front. Make sure you go with a guide or bring a guidebook, as you don’t want to miss anything.
00120, Vatican City
Painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling are considered some of the finest art ever produced. These religious paintings include nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, of which The Creation of Adam is undoubtedly the most iconic.
Piazza Venezia, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
The Monument of Victor Emmanuel II in Rome, nicknamed the Wedding Cake (and, alternately, the Typewriter) for its distinctive boxy shape, offers some of the most stunning panoramic views to be had of the Eternal City, in every direction. There is an elevator to the top and a large roof deck from which to take it all in—not to be missed, and particularly glorious at sunset, as the shadows fall across the Roman Forum.
Piazzale Napoleone I, 00197 Roma RM, Italy
Encompassing early 200 acres of rolling parkland, Villa Borghese is Rome’s verdant heart and everyone’s favorite place for an afternoon walk. The vast gardens are criss-crossed with picturesque paths, where visitors can meander past ancient statues and fountains, sit by a lake or caffè, and take in a film at one of two cinemas. For culture vultures, there is a Shakespearean Globe Theatre with a robust summer schedule, a historic puppet theater, and several world-renowned museums including Galleria Borghese with its enviable collection of Bernini sculptures and Caravaggio paintings. Younger kids enjoy playgrounds, electric train rides, and a kids museum, while children of all ages can get active with skate, bike, and paddleboat rentals.
00186 Rome, Metropolitan City of Rome, Italy
The Roman Forum is where ancient Rome began. The sprawling archaeological park gives us just a hint of what the Roman Empire once was—a dominant and diverse society. The Forum itself was the political, social, religious, and commercial focal point for the Roman Republic and eventually the whole Empire—for the most elite members of society as well as the common plebs. Walking through the Forum is a walk through history, from its beginning as a valley with small hilltop communities (8th century B.C.E.) to its rise as the capital of an empire. The ruins of basilicas, temples, public forum spaces, and shops can be explored, and the adventure leads to Palatine Hill, an area of high-society patrician homes including the house of Caesar Augustus.
Via dei Condotti, 86, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Once the haunt of expat artists, poets, and dreamers, Antico Caffè Greco, on Rome’s glamorous Via Condotti, is a must. At this 18th-century caffè, you’ll learn that Romans can be very particular about their coffee. Cappuccino is a morning-only affair, and you’ll drink your first one of the day standing up at the bar. When the afternoon slump rolls around, you can sit and savor a caffè macchiato. Open since 1760, Antico Caffè Greco has preserved all of its old-school Renaissance charm. The coffee will cost you five times as much as what you may be accustomed to, but the experience is worth it.
Via del Politeama, 23/25, 00153 Roma RM, Italy
A local landmark, Taverna Trilussa has been a Trastevere hangout for nearly a century. The ivy-covered entrance opens to a lively family-run trattoria where prosciutto and dried herbs decorate the walls alongside the usual trappings of vintage photos, books, and paintings. Taverna Trilussa is most famous for its tableside serving of typical Roman dishes like bucatini all’Amatriciana and cacio e pepe, theatrically tossed about in a frying pan or even a Parmesan wheel. Reservations are a must, or else expect to queue up alongside all the tourists waiting for a plate of mozzarella in carrozza.
Via degli Specchi, 6, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
This pub, owned by the Piedmont-based Baladin brewing company and Lazio’s own Birra del Borgo, opened in September 2009 and was quickly canonized as the best place to drink Italian beers in Rome. There are over 120 labels to choose from, ranging from well-known Italian brewers like Baladin and Birra del Borgo to more obscure producers like Lover Beer and Troll; there is also a handful of American beers such as Sierra Nevada and Brooklyn Brewery. In addition to 100 bottled beers, there are anywhere from 20-30 beers on tap. The outgoing staff is happy to make recommendations. The food menu includes salads, sandwiches, potato croquettes, pasta and homemade potato chips.
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